Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Knowledge and Understanding as Qualifications for the Supreme Court

The discussion of the appointment of a new U.S. Supreme Court Justice that is taking place in the media seems to focus almost entirely on the ideological positions of the candidates. Ideology is too often the antagonist of knowledge and understanding.

The first qualification of the next Justice should be strong moral character. He or she should be an ethical person who not only will try to do the right thing, but who will be assumed to do so as a result of the reputation gained by a lifetime of ethical behavior.

The person should be of balanced disposition, with a temperament that allows rational thought always to be brought to bear on the issues before the Court.

I would like a person thoroughly expert in the law, and especially in constitutional law. The Supreme Court bench does not have training wheels. Indeed, the person should have the demonstrated ability to lead a team of clerks in analyzing legal issues, and a demonstrated ability to successfully debate legal issues with his peers, such as will be required on the Supreme Court.

Perhaps more important, the person should have a strong grasp of history, and the impact of the Court as well as of the law on society. The rulings of the Supreme Court must be understood in the largest context.

The person should have the ability to frame decisions (and dissents) in ways that clarify principles of law and the constitution, when it is appropriate to do so, to avoid inadvertent framing that creates spurious clarification when it is not appropriate to clarify, and the wisdom to recognize the difference.

The person should be humane, understanding how to temper justice with mercy, and understanding when and how to do so from the Supreme Court bench.

The person should be wise, and should have the authority given to those who are known to be wise.

The expertise and legitimate intellectual authority will not be found other than in a gifted legal scholar, who has demonstrated long dedication to the study of the law and society.

Among the few candidates who combine such qualifications, the President can choose whichever pleases him best on ideological grounds.

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