When the Chancellor's Named 'Kevin'
Urban Archeology

Politics and the High Court in the US and Germany

Adam Liptak of the New York Times recently noted and lamented the fact that the decisions of the American Supreme Court are increasingly decided on explicitly partisan grounds: 

The perception that partisan politics has infected the court’s work may do lasting damage to its prestige and authority and to Americans’ faith in the rule of law.

“An undesirable consequence of the court’s partisan divide,” said Justin Driver, a law professor at the University of Texas, “is that it becomes increasingly difficult to contend with a straight face that constitutional law is not simply politics by other means, and that justices are not merely politicians clad in fine robes. If that perception becomes pervasive among today’s law students, who will become tomorrow’s judges, after all, it could assume a self-reinforcing quality.”

Presidents used to make nominations based on legal ability, to cater to religious or ethnic groups, to repay political favors or to reward friends. Even when ideology was their main concern, they often bet wrong.

Three changes have created a courthouse made up of red and blue chambers. Presidents care more about ideology than they once did. They have become better at finding nominees who reliably vote according to that ideology. And party affiliation is increasingly the best way to predict the views of everyone from justices to bank tellers.

The lefty in me wonders what all the fuss is about. Commentators such as Driver posit a politics-free space of legal analysis which used to exist and has been eroded in the past few decades, and that this erosion is a bad thing. You can doubt each proposition; perhaps the Supreme Court has always been a place of political contention obscured by a thick veneer of procedural legalism, and we're all better off now that the veneer's been washed away. 

But this seems a bit glib. The increasingly naked partisanship of American Supreme Court Justices is almost certainly a Bad Thing, and damages the reputation the United States internationally. Further, it's hard to see it changing anytime soon: given that (1) there are only 9 spots on the Supreme Court; (2) the ideological balance is razor-sharp, and (3) each judge literally serves for life, any President who defected from the strategy of appointing reliable votes for his party would face a huge backlash: 'Why did you appoint that squish when you could have appointed someone more reliable? Do you think the next president from the opposite party is going to return the favor? Of course not -- congratulations, you've just changed the composition of the nation's highest court for the next 35 years.' 

Germany doesn't have problems this acute, since German Federal Constitutional Court (FCC) judges serve only 12-year terms. In Germany, seats on the Federal Constitutional Court are allocated according to a semi-secret agreement between the two largest political parties, the CDU and the SPD. As Maximilian Steinbeis points out in a recent entry. The judicial Selection Committee of the German Parliament is formally assigned to choose new FCC judges, but the real decision is made out of public sight long before the Committee votes. Right now, an 'SPD-associated' judge is about to retire, and the SPD gets to choose her replacement. They actually carried out a sort of audition for potential replacements. But picking judges through informal backroom agreements has its own problems (my translation):

I was always for a more public and transparent procedure for choosing FCC judges. The SPD parliamentary group's procedure thus conforms to the trend: choosing FCC judges is getting more political. The expertocratic tradition that has dominated until now -- in which the search for candidates is in the hands of tight-lipped and well-connected legal politicians do thorough background checks, conduct many, many confidential discussions, and then filter out the One (and for God's sake no one else!) to present to the parliamentary party behind closed doors -- this sort of thing no longer looks good.

Therefore, the plan to have judges ... chosen no longer by the intransparent Selection Committee but chosen in a plenary session of the Bundestag (g) seems like an appropriate solution. Of course, nobody wants the process to become as politicized as it is in the USA, and therefore the vote should happen without public speeches. Even so, we will in the future know -- for better or worse -- exactly how much support each Judge had when he or she assumed office. It remains to be seem how that might affect the atmosphere in the chambers of Karlsruhe.

Steinbeis isolates the central problem here: transparency leads to political accountability, and that's precisely what you want to limit when picking judges. Until the late 1960s, the American system managed to sustain the ideal (illusion?) of neutral criteria for picking judges, but as hearings became increasingly public, the judge's political profile increased to the point where it's now dominant. And that's why Steinbeis cites America not as a model, but a cautionary example.


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"it becomes increasingly difficult to contend with a straight face that constitutional law is not simply politics by other means"
But is this conviction in itself not wrong and naive - isn't justice in any case, and at least to a certain degree, an extension of politics? It might be more blatantly obvious in international law, but even in domestic cases, law is never fully separate from politics. Anything else is legalism.
That reminds me: Andrew, are you familiar with Judith Shklar's "Legalism"? It is a bit of an underappreciated classic Sam Moyn wrote about very articulately, if only from the perspective of international law (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2148437). I highly suggest a read.

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