Judicial ethics largely prohibits judges from engaging in political activities, including endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. These restrictions on judicial politicking, intended to preserve both the reality and the appearance of judicial integrity, independence, and impartiality, have been in place for decades. Although the Code of Conduct for United States Judges does not apply to the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Justices have long followed the norm that they do not take sides, at least publicly, in partisan political elections. And while elected state judges have some leeway to engage in limited political activities associated with their own candidacy," the Justices of the United States Supreme Court have consistently remained on the sidelines in contested partisan elections.
That is why the events of July 2016 were so surprising. With the 2016 presidential election less than four months away, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shocked everyone when she bluntly spoke out against the Republican presidential nominee, and the ultimate winner of the election, Donald Trump. On multiple occasions, she expressed her disdain for Trump in no uncertain terms, calling Trump a "faker," criticizing Trump's failure to release his tax returns, and even joking that her husband would have suggested moving to New Zealand if Trump were to be elected president.
Given the ethical rules and the long-standing norms of judicial behavior, these were jarring statements from a sitting Supreme Court Justice. Immediately, there was a near-unanimous outcry against the propriety of Ginsburg's comments, ultimately leading her to apologize. The chorus of critics included both conservative and reliably leftist pundits, media commentators, legal academics, numerous politicians, and Donald Trump himself. It was not just conservatives who rebuked her statements. Despite her near-mythical status in progressive circles, among the critics were some of Justice Ginsburg's biggest supporters. In an election that saw little bipartisan agreement on almost anything, nearly everyone seemed to agree that Justice Ginsburg's statements violated ethical rules and norms.
This Article examines whether Ginsburg's many critics were right. I suggest that the norms may be built on a shaky foundation and grounded in long-abandoned myths about the judicial role and judicial decision-making. The traditional restraints on Supreme Court Justices expressing their own strongly-held political views does not further, or at least does not significantly further, any of the important goals generally served by the ethics codes. While Justice Ginsburg's comments, and comments like hers, may change the way the people view the Court and its Justices, their mere utterance causes little damage to the reputation and standing of the federal judiciary generally, or the Supreme Court in particular. In addition, stifling judicial speech disserves the American people by misleading them about judges and judging and concealing potentially important heuristic information from the electorate.
Liberty University Law Review
Suggested Bluebook Citation
Seen and Heard: A Defense of Judicial Speech,
Liberty U. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/faculty-publications/97