Merrick Garland, the appellate judge whom President Barack Obama has nominated to the Supreme Court, is a “moderate.” Of that we are assured by all the best people writing in all the usual venues: USA Today, Politico, the Los Angeles Times.
A moderate what?
The question may be in this instance a purely intellectual one. Garland could be the second coming of Solomon, and Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues would be looking to leave him locked up in the Senate basement until after the presidential elections, after which President Cruz might choose a better candidate; President Clinton, a much worse one (which would probably result in the lame-duck Senate working to confirm Garland); or President Trump, the devil knows what. The immediate case against advancing Garland’s nomination has nothing to do with Garland and everything to do with the Senate rousing itself to do its constitutional duty and check President Obama’s executive imperialism with such tools as it has at its disposal.
Carrie Severino and others have argued here that Garland is no judicial moderate, that he is a quiet left-wing activist well disposed to political efforts to undermine the Second Amendment. On that question, I defer judgment to our experts. But there is another question we ought to consider, which is whether there is any such thing as a judicial moderate.
If the expanse of your political imagination is roughly the dimensions of the New York Times, that may seem an absurd question. We hear all the time about “moderates” and “extremists” in the nation’s courts. A great deal of huffing and puffing, which no doubt dishevels the pages of a nearby copy of The Economist, insists upon the virtue and the needfulness of such moderation.
But the fundamental question that we must ask about Supreme Court nominees — all nominees to all benches, in fact — is not one of degree, which is the sort of question that the criterion of “moderateness” would apply. Instead, it is an either/or question: Does the law say what it means and mean what it says, or are judges empowered to graft private notions of justice from their own souls onto the law and the Constitution?
Antonin Scalia understood that this was a yes-or-no proposition, and they hated him for it.
A judge isn’t a little bit of an activist any more than a person suffers from a little bit of cancer. Activism is activism, and cancer is cancer. There are better and worse cancers to have, to be sure, but you either have cancer or you don’t. Which is not to say that there will not be honest disagreements among justices about the meaning of a particular constitutional provision or how a statute should be construed. But the party-line character of the Supreme Court shows us the institution’s true nature: It is, effectively, a super-legislature, not a court. That the party-line character is lopsided, with a few conservatives still using Scalia’s Stupid But Constitutional stamp while the so-called liberals operate as a unit, is of course relevant; but the attention that is paid to the ratio of progressives to conservatives on the Court fails to account for the fact that this should not matter.
It should not matter — if the law were the law. If the law is whatever our black-robed secular clerics say it is, then it does matter what sort of political views justices hold. And if it matters what sort of political views justices hold, then the Supreme Court is not a court, but something else.Conservatives should not accept an extreme left-wing judicial activist. They should not accept an extreme right-wing judicial activist, if there were such a thing. They should not accept a moderate judicial activist, for the same reason that they would not shoot themselves in the foot with a firearm of moderate caliber. Litmus tests may be in bad odor with our self-proclaimed sophisticates, but here one is very much in order: The law is the law is the law, and it isn’t anything else. Those who believe otherwise do not belong on the Supreme Court any more than moderate phrenologists belong on medical-school faculties or moderate foxes should be assigned guard duty at the henhouse.
If the best that can be said of Garland is that he would do only moderate violence to the Constitution, then that is a complete and whole case against confirming him, or even considering his confirmation.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.