A book talk at the Law School on Tuesday evening addressed the vacancy on the Supreme Court and the recent politicization of the court’s decisions.
On Nov. 15, the Lillian Goldman Law Library sponsored a book talk with Lincoln Caplan, a visiting lecturer in law, which was moderated by Noah Messing LAW ’00, a lecturer in the Law School. Caplan has spent his career writing about the justice system as staff writer for the New Yorker, editor at U.S. News & World Report and a member of The New York Times’ editorial board. Caplan spoke about his new book “American Justice 2016: The Political Supreme Court,” in which he argues that Supreme Court decisions have resulted largely from political agendas.
“It’s no surprise, and yet kind of a tragedy, that when you have an election, like the one we just had, where one of the most important outcomes was going to be the direction of the court for a generation likely, the treatment of the court in the couple of debates was very, very superficial,” Caplan said.
The discussion was a part of the library’s faculty book talk series, which aims to provide a platform for faculty to discuss their scholarship and for the library to promote the faculty publications in its collections, said Lisa Goodman, associate law librarian for administration.
The talk is particularly timely given the results of the presidential election. President-elect Donald Trump is expected to appoint one justice and could possibly appoint more over the course of his time in office. Following the death of the traditionalist Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the court is split along party lines with four conservative and four liberal justices. Trump could appoint another conservative justice to create a majority on the bench.
In his new book, Caplan analyzes the Supreme Court term from October 2015 to June 2016. He also cites Supreme Court rulings on the 2000 presidential election, abortion and campaign finance law as proof of the influence of political agendas on the court’s decisions.
Beyond the rulings themselves, Caplan seeks to explain the historical framework for this politicization, noting that the current fusion of justice and partisan agendas is not new.
Throughout much of American history, particularly since 2005 under Chief Justice John G. Roberts, decisions have continually fallen along party lines. Republican presidents appointed conservative justices, while Democratic presidents appointed liberal justices, which has ultimately led to an ideologically split Supreme Court. While the goal of the judicial branch is to prevent corruption by maintaining political neutrality, Supreme Court decisions have become partisan.
In his talk, Caplan noted that the partisan influence is subconscious.
“The problem is not that [Chief Justice Roberts] thinks he is a Republican first,” said Caplan. “[The justices have] internalized the views of law and politics that are associated with those parties.”
Caplan proposes methods in his book to regain neutrality and American trust in the Supreme Court, such as making the justices’ opinions easily understandable to the public.
Caplan’s other works include “Up Against Law: Affirmative Action and the Supreme Court” and “The Insanity Defense and the Trial of John W. Hinckley Jr.,” which won the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association. He is currently a member of the editorial board of the American Scholar — the quarterly literary magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society —and a contributing editor for Harvard Magazine.
This fall, Caplan is teaching a class at Yale Law School called “The Art of Argument.”
Some international students attended the talk out of pure curiosity about the U.S. legal system.
“I’m not really familiar with the U.S. system, and I’m interested in how the Supreme Court functions,” said Sanne Hilde D. Jansen LAW ’16, who comes from Belgium.
Correction, Nov. 17: An earlier version of this article misstated the nature of the class Caplan is teaching this fall. In fact, he is not co-teaching with Emily Bazelon, who is on book leave.
Correction, July 26: An earlier version of this article contained an unauthorized quote from Rachel Frank LAW ’19. The quote has been removed.