The Justices Should Stay Home

Justice Clarence Thomas, appearing at a Florida law school, made some interesting remarks about the Supreme Court’s decision striking down portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law. The New York Times dutifully reports his jab, “I found it fascinating that the people who were editorializing against it were The New York Times Company and The Washington Post Company. … These are corporations.” And there was more:

“If 10 of you got together and decided to speak, just as a group, you’d say you have First Amendment rights to speak and the First Amendment right of association,” he said. “If you all then formed a partnership to speak, you’d say we still have that First Amendment right to speak and of association.”

That’s as compelling and succinct an argument as you will get in defense of constitutional principles and the sanctity of political speech. Most interesting, perhaps, were his remarks on attending the State of the Union:

“I don’t go because it has become so partisan and it’s very uncomfortable for a judge to sit there,” he said, adding that “there’s a lot that you don’t hear on TV — the catcalls, the whooping and hollering and under-the-breath comments.”

“One of the consequences,” he added in an apparent reference to last week’s address, “is now the court becomes part of the conversation, if you want to call it that, in the speeches. It’s just an example of why I don’t go.”

Regardless of how one feels about the Citizens United v. FEC case or Justice Sam Alito’s “not true” retort, it’s hard to disagree with that logic. There is good reason for the justices to stop showing up. This is a partisan affair in which the president lays out a political agenda and, at least in this case, swipes at the other branches of government. Why should judges feel obligated to sit there? Why would they even feel comfortable? And really, there is no purpose to be served by the judges sitting mutely (or not) as the president solicits cheers for health care or incurs boos for a budget freeze. These are justices and not political players, after all, although the line between political apparatchiks and judges is becoming unfortunately blurry these days.

The ABA Canon 4 of judicial ethics (which is the model for many state-bar ethics rules) states: “A judge or candidate for judicial office shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.” Well, the State of the Union is not exactly political “activity” in the way that a campaign rally is, but it’s close and becomes more “interactive” each year. If the purpose of that rule is to maintain the divide between judges and politics and to avoid ensnaring judges in partisan brawls, then a good place to start would be for justices to follow Justice Thomas’s guidance. Really, they can watch it on TV.