Evolving standards, Douglas’s arrival, and Blackmun’s departure:
Mar. 31 1958—In Trop v. Dulles, the Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 vote, invalidates the sentence of forfeiture of citizenship imposed on a soldier who deserted during wartime. Illustrating two of the gimmicks of the liberal judicial activist—abstraction far removed from the text of the Constitution and invocation of the Living Constitution—Chief Justice Warren’s plurality opinion declares that the “basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment[’s bar on cruel and unusual punishments] is nothing less than the dignity of man” and that the Eighth Amendment “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” (Somehow those “evolving standards” are seldom broadly reflected in actual legislation.)
Justice Frankfurter’s dissent for four justices points out that wartime desertion is a capital offense “and has been so from the first year of independence.” Therefore, “to insist that denationalization is ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment is to stretch that concept beyond the breaking point.” Asks Frankfurter rhetorically: “Is constitutional dialectic so empty of reason that it can be seriously urged that loss of citizenship is a fate worse than death?” Even far more in recent decades than in 1958, the answer to Frankfurter’s question is plainly yes.
Apr. 4 1939—Two weeks after President Roosevelt nominates SEC chairman (and former Yale law professor) William O. Douglas to the Supreme Court, the Senate confirms the nomination by a 62-4 vote. On the Court from 1939 until 1975, Douglas is the longest-serving justice in history.
In his 2003 New Republic review of a biography of Douglas (Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas, by Bruce Allen Murphy), Seventh Circuit judge Richard A. Posner offers this succinct summary of Douglas’s judicial career: “For Douglas, law was merely politics.” Here’s Posner’s colorful fuller assessment: “Apart from being a flagrant liar, Douglas was a compulsive womanizer, a heavy drinker, a terrible husband to each of his four wives, a terrible father to his two children, and a bored, distracted, uncollegial, irresponsible, and at times unethical Supreme Court justice who regularly left the Court for his summer vacation weeks before the term ended. Rude, ice-cold, hot-tempered, ungrateful, foul-mouthed, self-absorbed, and devoured by ambition, he was also financially reckless—at once a big spender, a tightwad, and a sponge—who, while he was serving as a justice, received a substantial salary from a foundation established and controlled by a shady Las Vegas businessman.”
As Posner acknowledges, one can, of course, “be a bad person and a good judge, just as one can be a good person and a bad judge.” By the evidence, Douglas was both a terrible person and a terrible judge.
Apr. 6 1994—Justice Harry Blackmun announces his impending retirement after 24 years on the Court. His majority opinion in Roe v. Wade (1973) is rivaled only by Dred Scott as the worst opinion in Supreme Court history. As one of Blackmun’s own former clerks, Edward Lazarus (who described himself as “someone utterly committed to the right to choose [abortion]” and as “someone who loved Roe’s author like a grandfather”), aptly put it, “As a matter of constitutional interpretation and judicial method, Roe borders on the indefensible.” Also from Lazarus: “Justice Blackmun’s opinion provides essentially no reasoning in support of its holding. And in the almost 30 years since Roe’s announcement, no one has produced a convincing defense of Roe on its own terms.” (My June 2005 Senate testimony (in parts 1 and 2) presents additional criticisms, including from other supporters of legal abortion, and explains why abortion policy needs to be restored to its rightful place in the democratic political processes.)
For an explanation of this recurring feature, see here.