Carol Platt Liebau: Look Inside the Beltway . . .

Monday, July 11, 2005

Look Inside the Beltway . . .

Here is a piece referencing the unreliability of Supreme Court justices, at least by ideological measures. But a key paragraph struck me, as it reflects a view I have long held:

Former Republican officials also complain that justices from outside Washington get swept up in the city's social scene and soon expect invitations to embassy parties and opera balls. With court-assigned drivers transporting them to elite functions, they can find themselves drifting to mirror more liberal, urban elite opinion, some say.

There is something to the inside Beltway-outside Beltway distinction, although it's not necessarily the fact of having a driver and being transported to "elite functions" (and "embassy parties" aren't all that elite, BTW, it's the private dinner parties at the home of Washington "cave dwellers" that actually matter to people). It's the susceptibility of a given justice to moral vanity, to being wooed by elite law professors and elite media to believe that s/he has the responsibility to outline a "moral vision" for the country (or some such nonsense), rather than having been placed on the Court to -- simply -- interpret the Constitution.

Obviously, someone from inside the beltway can be wooed this way. But it's much more difficult, perhaps because they've been "around" enough to see how the game is played. Don't believe me? Look at the most reliable conservative justices . . . Thomas and Scalia. Both came from the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. O'Connor came from Arizona, Kennedy came from California (sorry, everyone!), and Souter came from New Hampshire.

It's a very heady experience suddenly to be the focus of attention in the nation's capital, especially if one hasn't seen how the game is played enough to be a bit wary of it. And being suddenly transplanted deprives new justices of the network they've relied on, potentially making them far too dependent on other justices for guidance and support (see the mention in the linked story to Justice Souter's "friendship" with Justice Brennan? The wily old justice wooed both Souter and O'Connor, who was often wounded by Scalia's sharply worded disagreement with her opinions).

The same calculus isn't even relevant to liberals -- because they have numerous incentives to stay to the left (in other words, Justice Breyer has NO outside pressure whatsoever to transform into a conservative). This doesn't mean, of course, that every conservative judge from outside the beltway would automatically go wiggly. I know Edith Jones a bit, and believe that she has the strength of character to stand firm. (In contrast to Justice Kennedy, who -- accordingly to very reliable sources -- was always far too concerned about what the opinion page of The New York Times said about him.)

But all things being equal, the safest choice would seem to come from within the Beltway (actually, or functionally -- as in the Fourth Circuit sitting in Alexandria . . . Judge Luttig's court).


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