By Justin Crowe, an assistant professor of political science at Williams College
Gee, for a one-time constitutional law professor, Barack Obama sure does seem to harbor a lot of hostility for judges. (And, judging [a legal pun — ha!] by Samuel Alito and Jerry Smith, they for him.) Doesn’t he? First there was the broadside at his 2011 State of the Union criticizing the Court's decision in Citizens United, prompting Alito's now-infamous “not true” moment. Next there was his claim that the Court wouldn't dare strike down the Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional, prompting Smith’s surely soon-to-be-infamous order to a DOJ lawyer for a memo outlining the Justice Department’s views on judicial review. For all his claims about “due deference to the separation of powers” and supposed belief in the importance of an independent judiciary to protect the rights of citizens and the rule of law, it appears Obama only likes the Court — only likes the judiciary more broadly — when it agrees with him. And surely that sort of “anti-judgeite” perspective is a terrible one for American constitutionalism and American democracy. Right?
Well, yes — sort of ... and no, not at all. In a sense, Obama only really values judicial power to the extent that its exercise comports with his policy preferences. But, at base, who doesn’t? Presidents always want — have always wanted — courts to bend to their will. And politicians generally always try — have always tried — to shape courts to serve their interests. So what? Does this really “politicize” the judiciary in some needless, inappropriate, and harmful way? Does it really demonstrate that judicial power — that judicial independence, that law itself — is somehow perpetually under political siege? Not even remotely.
As I attempt to show in my recent book, Building the Judiciary: Law, Courts, and the Politics of Institutional Development, any claims that judicial power — that judicial autonomy or judicial independence — has ever been, in any meaningful sense, beyond the sphere of politics are fundamentally incorrect.