President Obama has chosen his second Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, and much of the dialogue centers around ideology. Kagan would replace John Paul Stevens, viewed as the leader of the Court’s liberal block. Liberals fear Kagan is too conservative, and conservatives point to her support for gay rights, when she was Dean of Harvard Law School, as an indication that she may be too liberal.
This made me think of what kind of judge I want to hear my clients’ cases, after almost 40 years of practicing law. It’s not about ideology. It’s about fairness, the ability to listen, respect for the law, and respect for the litigants who stand before them. Cases, like life, don’t fit into neat ideological categories. They are fact specific. The judge you want is one who will work to grasp the particulars of the case and the people he or she is judging. A conservative judge, for example, in a case involving the sale of drugs might see something that separates the case from others. A liberal judge with strong opinions about drugs and their impact on poor communities might ignore or not even see it.
I recall a case in which I represented a group challenging the conduct of a meeting of the county committee of a political party. There was intense speculation about which judge would be assigned to the case and where that judge fit on the political spectrum. The case, it turned out, was assigned to a judge whose political leanings were unclear. He just listened to the evidence and made a fair decision, one which a more “political” judge might have backed way from.
So, when judging judges, apply the same standards you would want the judge to apply to you. Fairness trumps ideology almost every time. And, by the way, when Justice Stevens was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ford in 1975, he was considered a pro-business conservative.