August 29, 2004

Off the Bench By DAHLIA LITHWICK

Published: August 29, 2004

And with a blink, summer's over. A chill touches the air, sunlight softens to gold, and brightly colored war protesters begin to drop from the trees in Central Park.

Presidential candidates are everywhere - in our stadiums and town halls, clogging up our parks and porches, our televisions and our computer screens. Every baby is kissed; every hand shaken. They beg us to know them, to peer inside their hearts and really understand who they are.

Which makes it all the more arresting that nine Supreme Court justices have just spent another summer like vacationing Greek gods, frolicking among us, blending right in.

"What do U.S. Supreme Court justices do each summer?" you ask. A good question, raising, implicitly, a better question: What do they do, ever? Where do they live? What do they read? What are their favorite shows? Do they speak in declarative sentences around the dinner table - or only in strings of Socratic hypotheticals?

The Supreme Court is by far the most mysterious branch of government - its members glimpsed only rarely, like Bigfoot, crashing through the forest at twilight. The court is the one branch that operates in near secrecy - no cameras, no tape recorders, no explanations, no press conferences, rare interviews, no review by other branches. The most powerful branch is also the most enigmatic. They love it that way.

So how do the justices spend their summers? Some travel to exotic locales, where they get paid lots of money to teach at fabulous seaside summer law school programs. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg taught at Hofstra University law school's program in Nice, France, this summer, while Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist taught at Tulane's program at Cambridge.

What else do they do with their summers? Since all four justices over age 70 are hostages to their mutually-assured-destruction refusal to retire (each unwilling to give an opposing president the chance to fill a seat), they probably do lots of resting. Even one extra day on that court may mean casting the deciding vote in Bush v. Kerry - a case poised to detonate over the legal landscape this winter, the moment the recount starts in Ohio.

Shunning travel and speeches, Justice David Souter - the man who says cameras will be rolled into the Supreme Court only over his dead body - hightails it home to New Hampshire each summer, where, like Punxsutawney Phil's New England cousin, he'll hide out until the first Monday in October. Justice Souter will under no circumstances be found in a Louisiana duck blind, where Justice Antonin Scalia is rumored to spend his summers hunting with his pal Dick Cheney.

Moreover, that rumor is totally unfair to Justice Scalia.

Duck season in Louisiana doesn't start until November.

Perhaps the most emblematic justice is Clarence Thomas, who spends much of his summer touring the country in a used bus that's been converted into a luxury motor home. That bus is the perfect symbol for a man who won't read newspapers, or engage audiences that don't share his ideology. It allows him to roam the country, hermetically sealed and unreachable inside a moving fortress.

Ultimately, that's what members of the Supreme Court do each summer - they roam the world, safe with their secrets, secure in their lifetime appointments, unaccountable and unavailable to voters or presidents.

And just as the presidential candidates beg you to know them - to look deep in their eyes and see their souls - the Supreme Court justices beg to be forgotten. They still believe that their sole authority rests in the myth that they are oracles. That's why it's not in their interest to remind you that you'll be picking the next Supreme Court with your vote come November. We forget that appointing judges may be the single most important thing a president does - it's easy to forget it when they've fixed it so you can't even pick Anthony Kennedy out of a lineup.

(He's the guy who looks like Ken Starr.)

Trust me, beneath their sunblock, and their duck hats, sit the nine most powerful, secretive public officials in this land. And whether you can name them or not is immaterial. Because after November, that president whose soul you've come to know so well is going to start naming a whole lot of their successors.


Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate, is a guest columnist during August. Thomas L. Friedman is on leave until October, writing a book. Maureen Dowd is on vacation.

Posted by fred7004 at August 29, 2004 09:17 AM | TrackBack
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