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Liberals v. Umpires

by Ramesh Ponnuru

In defense of the chief justice’s metaphor

Umpires are having a rough season. It’s bad enough that their blown calls are getting criticized. Now liberals are calling their very humanity into question.

Judging from their writing, the most pressing project for liberal legal writers right now is to discredit Chief Justice John Roberts’s metaphor of the judge as umpire. The consensus is that the metaphor reduces judges to machines. Adam Cohen, writing in Time, criticizes Roberts’s umpire talk, complaining that conservatives make judging sound like an “easy and uncomplicated” matter of “mechanically applying a rule.” Dahlia Lithwick, writing in Slate, concurs: “Justices can no more be neutral umpires . . . than they can be dispassionate microcomputers.” Law professor Sonja West, also writing in Slate, denounces the ideal of the justices as “robots” that “mechanically apply the law to the facts.” It may be that making this point is a condition of publication at Slate: Former assistant attorney general Walter Dellinger was there, too, in recent days, noting the impossibility of deciding cases through “applying mechanical logic” to the Constitution.

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