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Friday, November 04, 2022

Jotwell: Two articles on Supreme Court communication

I'm not as good as Howard at regularly posting pieces from Jotwell, where I help with the con law section, but--here's a jot about two articles, one by David Fontana and Christopher Krewson and the other by Barry Sullivan and Ramon Feldbrin, on, as it were, wholesale and retail communication by the Supreme Court. Here's the intro:

The leak of the draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was an embarrassment to the Supreme Court as an institution. Its perpetrator(s) ought to be found out and censured or punished. But consider the leak in a different light: as an experiment in communications. When the final opinion came out on June 24, there was no desperate casting-about to understand it. Of course there were additional opinions, including the dissent, to absorb. But as to the meat of the opinion, there was no spectacle of Supreme Court reporters flipping pages on the steps of the Court, trying to boil down tens of thousands of words in an instant; there was no unnecessary lack of public understanding of the decision. The nation was not happier. But was it better served?

Viewed in that light, these two articles are well-timed. They are also nicely complementary. One, Barry Sullivan and Ramon Feldbrin’s The Supreme Court and the People: Communicating Decisions to the Public, is comparatively oriented and practical in nature, drawing on other constitutional courts’ experience to suggest some basic improvements in Supreme Court communications. The other, David Fontana and Christopher N. Krewson’s The Rhetorical Power of the Supreme Court, is arguably less practical but more ambitious. It argues that extrajudicial discussion by the Justices about the Supreme Court constitutes a “rhetorical power” that can spur more productive public discussion of constitutional law. These are certainly different approaches. But both articles agree that the Court faces a legitimacy problem that can in, some measure, be addressed by better communication. We may doubt the likelihood of the cure. But the prescription is well worth the attention, practically and for its own sake.

And something from the end:

Both authorial pairs have made a valuable contribution to discussions of the public-facing approach of the Supreme Court. Just as important, in true peanut-butter-and-chocolate fashion, the roughly contemporaneous appearance of both articles adds a complementary value to each one, and to both taken together. Each provides a different focus. In Fontana and Krewson’s case it is the contribution that might be made by individual justices speaking extrajudicially; in Sullivan and Feldbrin’s case it is what the Court might do institutionally to make its opinions more accessible. Fontana and Krewson bring interesting empirical tools to bear on the issues they raise; Sullivan and Feldbrin employ comparative work to expand our sense of what is possible. Fontana and Krewson offer a valuable theoretical discussion; Sullivan and Feldbrin work in the practical realm. Together, they taste great.

In several senses, both papers are also very timely. The Court’s public approval standing has plummeted. Regardless of its legal or moral legitimacy, its role in the culture wars in a polarized society, and its convenience as a target in partisan politics, will not enhance its perceived legitimacy. The justices are well aware of this and are attempting to respond, at least on an individual basis. It is thus an excellent time to think about what the Court could do to shore up its real and perceived legitimacy.

In another sense, one may ask how much anything could help much right now. I say this not because the current 6-3 majority is disfavored by most law professors and journalists and many others; millions of Americans are delighted by it. But it is entirely possible that on both sides of that divide, the overriding concern will not be with “legitimacy” as such, but with acceptable results. The tendency to put that conversation in the language of legitimacy will only “weaponize” that term, to use the cliché of the day. The Court may find that whatever communications strategy it adopts will be the equivalent of baling out a sinking frigate with a tablespoon. That said, the issue is certainly not going away. Between them, these two articles offer food for thought and viable, practical options.

Enjoy--and, of course, check out both articles!

Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 4, 2022 at 11:11 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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