Supreme Court as a Court of Politics, Not Law

Look at the amicus briefs in the DACA case

By John Miano on April 30, 2020

There has been a growing trend to view the federal courts as a super-legislative body whose purpose is to correct the decisions of any state, Congress, or the president a plaintiff opposes. Under this view, the federal courts are expected to operate as courts of politics rather than courts of law.

Highlighting that view, after any major court decision the media breaks the judges down by political party, As the Washington Post did here:

The U.S. Supreme Court's five conservatives, all nominated by Republican presidents, sided with Republicans while the four liberals, nominated by Democrats, sided with Democrats.

With the decision in Trump v. Regents of the University of California (the DACA case) expected soon, I am still waiting to see a major media outlet explain the legal issues involved in the case. The media coverage is full of stories about the DACA politics and sob stories about illegal aliens who are at risk of losing their jobs. But if you want to find out whether DACA is lawful or whether the Trump administration's rescission of DACA was lawful — i.e., actual news — good luck finding it in the American media.

The Supreme Court deserves a lot of blame for perceived politicization of the federal courts. A fish stinks from the head, after all. One of the clearest signs of politics in the courts can be found in amicus briefs.

There were 35 amicus briefs filed in oppositions to the rescission of DACA. Among them, I could only find 10 that could generously be classified as making serious legal arguments. Within this group, the brief of Administrative Law Scholars was particularly good and is worth reading by those interested in the DACA legal issues.

For the most part, the amicus briefs are naked political documents. Many rely on anecdotes as evidence that would be inadmissible in a court of law. Some attempt to be relevant to law by tacking a legal argument already made by the parties to the end of their political statement. Instead of arguing why the Court should come to the legal conclusion that DACA should stay, most amici argue why the Court should come to the political conclusion that DACA should stay. Amici treat the Supreme Court as a court of politics. And the Court lets itself be treated as a court of politics.

One should keep in mind that the Supreme Court does not open its amicus doors wide for the little people. It is expensive to file an amicus brief. It has to be filed by an attorney who is a member of the court. The brief has to be printed and bound. The amicus brief is a game for insiders and not for the general public.

When the Supreme Court opens its doors to political arguments made by insiders, it is entirely reasonable for the public to view the Court as a political body.

That is not to say perception is reality. Note the recent decision in Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org. It was decided 5-4 with three "Republicans" and two "Democrats" in the majority and two "Democrats" and two "Republicans" in the minority.

When the Regents decision comes down in the next few weeks, do not expect the media to analyze it as a legal outcome.