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Wednesday, December 06, 2023

What John Roberts Could Learn From Niccolò Machiavelli

My new essay in Washington Monthly explains why the Supreme Court could have avoided a lot of trouble by consulting the work of a certain Renaissance political theorist. Here is the gist:

What John Roberts Could Learn From Niccolò Machiavelli

It takes a lot for a historical figure to be memorialized for nearly 500 years as an eponymous adjective. Still, Niccolò Machiavelli achieved that feat as the progenitor of devious political scheming. Nobody today wants to be called Machiavellian, but the truth is that Machiavelli provided some excellent advice to his patrons in 16th-century Florence, aspects of which remain valuable today. Even the Supreme Court, it turns out, could have benefited from Machiavelli’s counsel regarding their adoption of written ethics rules.

As Machiavelli explained in The Prince in 1532 when a disease begins, “it is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; after a time . . . it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. So it is in politics.” And so it was with the Supreme Court’s belatedly-issued Code of Conduct.

The court spent decades refusing to adopt a code of conduct at a time when it could have announced clear ethics standards unencumbered by the revelations that disastrously surfaced this year. When the court finally acted, it was already mired in scandals involving the sketchy finances of several justices. By then, as Machiavelli predicted, it was too late for a code to “cure” the court’s ailing reputation. 

You can read the full essay in Washington Monthly.

Posted by Steve Lubet on December 6, 2023 at 06:37 AM | Permalink


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