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Judges' opinions off the bench

Can Clarence Thomas attack liberals and still be a fair justice?

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What can judges properly say outside court? Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's harsh assessments of liberals throughout his recent autobiography have brought this question back into the news.

Of course, it has not been absent long. In March 2006, lawyers asked Justice Antonin Scalia to disqualify himself from a case involving Guantánamo detainees after he ridiculed the idea that captured enemy combatants deserved jury trials during a speech at the University of Freiburg in Switzerland. Justice Scalia refused, though in 2003 he did recuse himself from hearing a challenge to the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools after giving a speech in which he criticized the lower-court decision in that case.

Keeping quiet might seem the safer course, but judicial reticence can prompt complaints, too. During the confirmation hearings for John Roberts and Samuel Alito, many observers – myself included – expressed frustration at the nominees' unwillingness to say more about their opinions on constitutional law.

So are judges saying too much or too little? The answer, I think, is a bit of both. Consider first the confirmation hearings. The nominees generally stood on the principle that it would be improper for them to express opinions on matters that might come before the Court.

This is probably true with respect to particular cases that have been filed or whose filing can be foreseen. Canon 3A(6) of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges admonishes them not to comment publicly on the merits of a pending or impending case, though the canon exempts scholarly presentations from that ban and the code does not apply to Supreme Court justices. But it is not true with respect to particular legal issues. Nominees should not promise to rule a certain way, nor should they feel bound to adhere to statements made during confirmation hearings. But there is no good reason nominees cannot describe their current, provisional, views of particular constitutional issues.

The supposition that such comments are improper may stem from a failure to distinguish between cases and issues. Prejudging before reading the briefs and hearing arguments is wrong. Every litigant is entitled to a fair opportunity to convince a judge, and without hearing argument the judge cannot be sure which issues a case presents or on what facts it might turn. Prejudging is not wrong; it is the result of legal education and experience. A judicial nominee with no opinions on legal issues is not impartial but rather unqualified.

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