She carries a double edged sword to represent Reason and Justice in her right hand, in her left she holds scales to measure the support and opposition of the case before her, she wears a blindfold to prevent judgement based on the identity of the accused or the accuser. Judgement will be with Reason and Justice, balancing the facts of the arguments without consideration of those involved in the case. Fair and blind, Justice metes out her judgements based on facts and law.
Somewhere in almost every courthouse in America is a statue, a painting, an image of Lady Justice. She is the icon on our nation's Judiciary branch. A part of the checks and balances we learn about in school, our Judiciary branch is meant to be separate from the other two branches, the Executive and the Legislative, at its highest levels the Judiciary is subject to appointment by the Executive and confirmation by the Legislative. Not subject to the whims of the people and the ugly politics that can erupt during elections for other offices, the Judiciary is to stand alone using the Constitution and the standards of Justice to determine the legality of the actions of the other branches and the citizens.
Justice, the quasi-goddess, is meant to be blind; justice in the form of judges and justices however is typically not blind--perhaps sight impared, but not completely blind. This is because humans and not mythical figures serve in our courts. Humans that have religious beliefs, have social mores and norms with which they were raised, have their personal ethics and morals developed through their personal experiences, have their ideological bases which guide their intellect. While we are a nation of laws, while we have a Constitution that binds our society, while we have a system of governance that is representative of the will of the people, how the laws are applied, how the Constitution will be interpreted, what extent the powers of the governors will be exerted over the governed are decisions made by humans, sitting in a building, adorned with Lady Justice.
Yesterday many Americans became aware of the existence of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) for the first time. The most anonymous branch of government, the Judiciary, has at its pinnacle the most anonymous members of the Federal government, the Justices of SCOTUS. Most Americans cannot correctly answer how many Justices sit on the Supreme Court. Of those who correctly answer that there are nine justices cannot name any of them, and only a very small number can name all nine correctly. But these nine individuals carry as much power as the President of the United States, the Speaker of the House and any Senator, they are the final arbiters of law in our nation.
Currently the nine Supreme Court Justices are: Chief Justice John Roberts, John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David Souter, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito. Other than the Chief Justice, list is in order of when each of the Associate Justices was sworn onto the Court, starting with Stevens in 1975 and ending with Alito in 2006. Once seated Supreme Court Justices have life tenure, they leave the bench either through voluntary retirement, impeachment by the Senate or death. No member of the court has ever been removed by the impeachment process, so in the history of the United States vacancies on the court occur only through the voluntary retirement of a justice or if he or she dies while serving on the bench.
At the beginning of this month Associate Justice David Souter informed President Barack Obama that he was retiring from the Supreme Court. This act by Souter allows Obama to fulfill one of the most important powers of his office, appointing Souter's replacement on the Supreme Court. Once appointed, the nominee must then go before the Senate and undergo a very important confirmation process. After hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee, that committee will then vote on the nominee, a positive vote will send the nomination to the entire Senate to vote on confirmation, a negative vote will require Obama to put forth another nominee.
Yesterday Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor, a Federal Appeals Court Judge, to be fill Souter's seat on the Supreme Court. While the confirmation hearings for Sotomayor will not begin for some time, the confirmation process has already begun in the senate of public opinion and media relations. For the next several months, until she is confirmed by the Senate, and she will be unless some major suprise in her background is revealed during the confirmation process, Sotomayor's life will be on public display. And every detail will be put on the scales of public opinion as a reason she should or should not be confirmed to the Supreme Court.
By all accounts Sotomayor has a very liberal judicial philosophy. She will spark the debate between judicial conservatives who feel that the Judiciary should interpret law based on the Constitution and laws created by the Legislative and Executive branches and judicial liberals who feel the Constitution is a guide within which to create law from the Judicial branch to meet the needs of modern times. For the former judges interpret law and have a narrow view of the role of the Judiciary, for the latter judges may amend and create law from the bench and they have a very broad view of the Judiciary's role in our governance. Because Barak Obama won the election in November for President of the United States he gets to use his judicial philosophy in determining his nominees for Federal judgeships. Because the Democrats hold the majority in the Senate they get to use their collective judicial philosophy to confirm any appoints made. Because of all these factors sometime in late September we will witness the swearing in of Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Sotomayor's impact on the decisions of the court will be minimal until the next vacancy occurs on the court, or the next, or the next. Given her age, and presuming good health, one can expect her to serve for perhaps six or seven Presidential terms of office, giving her the potential to have a significant impact on SCOTUS decisions in the long term. Given that Justice Souter was part of a consistent 5-4 minority on SCOTUS decisions decided by one vote, her replacing Souter as one of four minority votes means little change in the prevailing majority's judicial philosophy and in the decisions rendered. Should one of the five in the consistent majority, Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas and often Kennedy, vacate the Supreme Court during an Obama administration however, then Sotomayor's appointment and confirmation can, and probably will, be part of a 5-4 majority for those with a liberal judicial philosophy.
Of interest is that Presidential appointments to the Supreme Court do not always turn out how the appointing President intended. Of the four members of what is termed the liberal block on SCOTUS, two were appointed by Republican Presidents: Justice Stephens by Gerald Ford and Justice Souter by George H.W. Bush. While it is doubtful that upon being seated Sotomayor will change her judicial philosophy, it is certain that the culture of the court will shift with her addition to the bench.