Gaming the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice

This blog is about to wake up big-time: there’s a new seminar on Adversarial Ethics at Duke full of eager bloggers — and it’s election season in the US. The neverending Presidential-election season provides us not only with a hyperactive example of one of the classic “deliberately adversarial institutions,” namely electoral politics. But it has a tendency to suck almost every other institution, including many that are not supposed to be adversarial or partisan, into its flames.

Exhibit A: the selection of a new justice to sit on the putative non-partisan Supreme Court.

There is not a single political commentator or politician who has not already weighed in on what the President and the members of the Senate ought to do now that Antonin Scalia’s sudden death has opened up a new seat on the bench. Richard Lempert‘s post over at The Brooking Institution’s Fixgov blog does a nice job of mapping out the likely scenarios in the language of game theory.

Assuming — kind of big assumption, no doubt — that the President (who is constitutionally required to nominate a new justice when there is a vacancy) and all of the Senators (who must confirm the nomination) are all rational, well informed, and intelligent, game theory should help us to predict what they are likely to do, given their divergent interests and options. I won’t rehearse them here. Lempert’s post is here.

The Supreme Court is a striking example of a kind of paradox or contradiction we see in many quintessentially non-adversarial institutions. The Court itself, and the role the justices have, is supposed to be strictly non-partisan. When they vote on a decision or opinion, the justices are supposed to interpret the law. They are not supposed to be supporting a cause or political movement they sympathize with, nor are they to base their votes and arguments on their own principles. And yet swirling around the Court are tornadoes of partisanship:

  • we know — because psychology — that each justice’s attempts to provide “strictly legal” interpretations of law and the Constitution are influenced in conscious and unconscious ways by values that are hotly contested in the political sphere;
  • for this reason, the nomination process we are seeing now involves high political stakes for the elected politicians who get a say;
  • many of the Court’s decisions have huge implications for the actors in other deliberately adversarial institutions — from those involved in electoral politics to corporations and their stakeholders in the marketplace, and even for sports leagues and athletes;
  • and last but not least, as a Court atop the adversarial legal system, the justices preside over a contest played out between lawyers who are committed to making any argument that will help their client’s interests in the cases at hand.

new yorker scotus ping pong

 

But the Court and the justices themselves are supposed to have the role of a neutral umpire, with no personal interests in any given case, calling strikes and balls as she sees them.

In principle.

Lempert finishes his post with the following reflections of this intriguing “game” we are now watching:

It is interesting to treat the contest between Obama and the Republicans as a game, and to think about the best strategies for each, and how the moves of one might affect the choices of the other. Yet we are not talking about a game. We are talking about consequential political choices that could change the direction of the law in this country for a generation. Voting rights, money in politics, access to abortion providers, environmental regulation, and much more could turn in the short run on the choice of Scalia’s replacement, although in the longer run there are enough aging Justices that the next presidential election is likely to be more consequential. Now it appears the long and short term outcomes may turn out to be intertwined, for the fate of Obama’s nominee may influence what happens in the election. The “game” being played by Obama and the Republican Senate is, however, one that we, the people, can only watch, though we are permitted to root for our favorite team.

It doesn’t hurt that Justice Scalia’s death set the contest in motion during that lull in the American sporting calendar between the Super Bowl and March Madness….

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