Should Court Reformers Attack the Idea of Law?

Continuing their important and timely project of promoting court reform, Professors Ryan Doerfler and Sam Moyn have written a scathing book review that nonetheless makes me think much more highly of the book being reviewed. At issue is Justice Breyer’s new “pamphlet,” as Doerfler and Moyn call it, and particularly its claim “that it would be dreadful to abandon the line between politics and law.” 

In their review, Doerfler and Moyn cast the failure of the law/politics distinction as the core reason to reform the Court. They argue that we have nothing to fear, and much to gain, from “open recognition that law is political.” It is easy to see why they would make that point. Defenses of the status quo sometimes insist that the Court is just doing law, so critics should take their political gripes elsewhere. Doerfler and Moyn want to preempt that defense by showing that the Court is really doing politics, rendering it a legitimate target for ideological critique. 

Yet the case for disempowering the Court doesn’t actually depend on rejecting the law/politics distinction and would be much more persuasive if it did not try to do so. 

For one thing, there is a difference between law and politics, haters notwithstanding. Just as a naïvely absolute law/politics division is oversimple, so too is it untenable to claim that law never has, or cannot possibly have, a practical, normative, or sociological identity different from politics. Doerfler and Moyn state that “Breyer comes exceedingly close to confessing that the Supreme Court is actually a political institution.” A more charitable reading of the book is that Breyer is channeling the sophisticated views of legality that are taught in jurisprudence courses every day. If Doerfler and Moyn embrace a similarly nuanced view, then perhaps there isn’t such a stark opposition between the reviewers and the Justice after all.

For another thing, the idea that the Court should be weaker is entirely compatible with the law/politics distinction. Perhaps the Court is just not very good at answering legal questions, at least in its current configuration. Or maybe the laws that the Court applies are themselves too capacious, or too amorphous, for democracy to flourish. If the Court is getting the law wrong, or if the law is itself undesirable, then we might have eminently good reason for judicial disempowerment—as many conservative critics of the Court have argued in recent decades. By seeming to insist on collapsing law and politics, Doerfler and Moyn prevent themselves from laying claim to these kinds of arguments and make adversaries out of allies.

Finally, frontal attacks on the law/politics distinction, besides being exaggerated and unnecessary, can indeed be very harmful. Breyer makes this point both in his book and in several interviews, and Doerfler and Moyn single it out for special rebuke. Here is one such passage from their article:

Identifying a very particular American institution with the “rule of law,” Breyer similarly remarked in a New York Times interview in late August that “tyranny, autocracy, irrationality” are the only alternatives. But Breyer’s belief that reform will bring lawlessness and oppression seems entirely melodramatic, given that no court in any other country enjoys the kind of policymaking authority our Supreme Court does—and those democracies often function better.

If Breyer is being “melodramatic,” then perhaps his critics are as well. In the interview that Doerfler and Moyn reference, Breyer was explicitly open to more careful reforms, like term limits. What Breyer is trying to say (I think) is that having a “rule of law” that is separate from politics is a precious, fragile thing. A society that completely rejects that separation, because it cannot see that judges do something different from politicians, is in trouble. Thus, we should guard against well-intentioned reforms that assume, or aspire to achieve, the collapse of law into politics. In this way, a melodramatic defense meets a comparably melodramatic critique. 

Doerfler and Moyn reply that the U.S. Supreme Court is the most powerful court in the world. Perhaps so, but it surely isn’t the only court premised on the existence of law. In essence, Breyer’s defense forces Doerfler and Moyn to shift to a different topic, one that they should have focused on all along: power. They can leave the law/politics distinction alone.

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