As many on this blog know, I rarely respond to criticism of columns that I run in USA Today or other newspapers. As a columnist, I feel that I am given a rare opportunity to express my views and criticism comes with the territory. However, I was taken aback by many of the comments in response to my Sunday column in The Washington Post discussing my proposal for the expansion of the United States Supreme Court. Though the proposal was given serious and supportive reviews by some sites like Forbes, some conservatives immediately assumed that I was a liberal simply upset with the anticipated ruling striking down the individual mandate provision of the health care law. When another law professor and blogger (Ann Althouse) joined this ill-informed and uncivil chorus, I thought I would respond. This blog has always strived to maintain a strict civility rule — distinguishing it from many other blogs by discouraging and sometimes eliminating ad hominem and personal attacks. Yet, I am still surprised by the lack of civility and responsibility by many — particularly fellow lawyers and academics — in responding to such proposals. [Update: Professor Ann Althouse has responded to my call for greater civility with a new blog entitled “Jonathan Turley’s civility bullshit about my calling ‘bullshit’ on his Court-packing plan.” Notably, Professor Althouse does not address the fact that she was completely wrong in claiming that I was motivated by dislike for the anticipated ruling striking down the individual mandate in the health care case. (Apparently both civility and factual accuracy fall into the same “BS” category for Professor Althouse).]
I previously ran the original and longer version of my column to further explain the proposal to expand the Supreme Court to nineteen members. I also have a second column in the Guardian newspaper that further discusses some of these issues.
The column generated a torrent of comments (roughly 1100 on the Post site alone). Many of these comments came from conservatives who immediately assumed that I was a liberal law professor who was just proposing this reform because I expected to the Court to rule against the health care law. Others asked why I did not propose this in the past and just suddenly called for an expansion on the eve of the health care decision.
Just to set the record straight.
First, before the health care law was passed, I spoke on Capitol Hill and expressed my personal opposition to the individual mandate law on federalism grounds though I felt that the Administration would have the advantage in the lower courts due to the current precedent from the Supreme Court. I then wrote and spoke against the individual mandate provision in columns, blog entries, and speeches. I disagreed with academics like Charles Fried on the federalism problems associated with the law. My criticism of the health care law has been quoted by members of Congress and those challenging the law (here and here and here). Indeed, a search of any browser will find hundreds of such references, including criticism of my position from supporters of the law.
Second, I did not just come up with this proposal on the eve of the decision. See, e.g., “Unpacking the Court: The Case for the Expansion of the United States Supreme Court in the Twenty-First Century.” 33 Perspectives on Political Science, no. 3, p. 155 (June 22, 2004). I proposed the expansion of the Supreme Court over ten years ago. I have discussed the reform with members of Congress and it has been debated in prior years.
Third, I have often agreed with the conservatives on the Court in its most controversial decisions. For example, like many in the free speech community, I agreed with the holding in Citizen’s United even though I disagreed with parts of the decision’s analysis and language. I have also said that I felt Arizona has a strong case on the immigration matter in claiming the right to enforce federal laws on illegal status.
Finally, the criticism of these readers and Professor Althouse below appear based on an assumption that the expansion of the Supreme Court would predictably add liberals. There is no reason to make such an assumption since the expansion is spread over a decade. Moreover, the Senate is expected to either continue to be split roughly evenly between the parties or actually go Republican in the next election. There is certainly no reason to assume that the additions to the Supreme Court would include candidates to my liking. Indeed, I criticized Obama’s selections. I do believe that additional justices will add a diversity of experience and viewpoints regardless of philosophical leanings.
After a couple of decades writing as a columnist and doing legal commentary, I have no illusions about people writing anonymously about articles or positions. The Internet often seems to unleash the most vicious side of people who seem to believe that they are relieved of basic decency or civility by anonymity. However, I was surprised by lawyers who made these baseless claims, including claims that are directly contradicted in the article (like the notion that one president would appoint all ten justices or that the number was simply selected arbitrarily). A simple search on the Internet would have shown that I am in fact a critic of the health care law.
That brings us to University of Wisconsin Professor Ann Althouse who ran a blog blasting my column. Althouse makes the point in her headline: “Don’t like the Supreme Court’s decision? Propose a Court-packing plan!” She then states the column pushes for the packing of the court “in anticipation of the Obamacare decision.” She responds to the proposal with “Oh, spare me the bullshit. It’s the same reason. You don’t like the opinions. It was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now.” I must confess that, when one of our regulars sent me this link, I was taken aback. I do not expect such ill-informed and uncivil attacks from a fellow academic. While Althouse writes a conservative blog and has been something of a lightning rod in the past, I would have thought that she would do a little research before going after another professor. In reality, I am calling for the expansion of the Court despite the fact that I would agree with the anticipated decision from the Court striking down the individual mandate. It is precisely the opposite of what is being suggested. Even though I expect to be on the winning side, I still do not believe it should be left to a single swing justice. I understand that some bloggers are given to hyperbole like Althouse asking “If the greatest good is in the greatest number, why not 100? Why not 1000?” — even though the column (and longer original article) addresses this question with reference to how en banc appellate courts work and more importantly the high courts of other countries. (I must confess that I find it odd to see the arbitrarily selected number of 9 defended by objecting that adopting the average size of other top courts is arbitrary). It is the allegation that I am just making this proposal due to my opposition to the expected decision that is beyond the pale in my view. I understand that we cannot always control comments on our blogs (and free speech allows for considerable room of expression), but such attacks from the academic hosts of these blog sites do not present a particularly good model for our students.
In her response to my call for greater civility and responsibility, Althouse responds by calling civility “bullshit” and says that she is “merely passionate and serious.” Rather than simply admit that she was wrong in suggesting that I was motivated by opposition to the expected ruling invalidating the individual mandate provision and a failure to simply confirm my position (which has been widely cited supporting the challengers), she again portrays the column as another example of how the Washington Post publishes columns “from law professors to launder its partisan politics into something with that looks scholarly and thoughtful.” It appears that “passionate and serious” includes falsely stating another professor’s positions on cases as the basis for a personal attack. Indeed, Professor Althouse has yet to inform her readers that she was wrong in suggesting that I disagreed with the conservatives in the health care litigation (and that my proposal was motivated by that opposition). She merely states that “In a later post, I’ll respond to more of Turley’s long, professorly post which denies that his Court-packing plan arises out of a distaste for the Supreme Court’s opinions.” Of course, the obvious suggestion was that the column was timed to anticipate the health care decision — a common theme in comments on her blog. I am not sure what “distaste for the Supreme Court’s opinions” means (though Professor Althouse’s original reference to my dislike for a “decision” is now a distaste for “opinions.”). We all disagree with some of the Court’s decisions — even though I have agreed with the majority of the decisions from this Court. I often side with conservatives on federalism and other areas while disagreeing on other areas like free speech and criminal cases. I disagree with the liberal justices on other cases, but I am not motivated by a desire to pack the Court with libertarians (which is widely cited as closer to my own views on many issues) rather than liberals. It would make no difference to me if this was the Warren Court. It is in my view demonstrably too small. While it may seem highly improbable in today’s rabidly political environment, it is possible to make such a proposal out of principle. Moreover, in a term with a series of 5-4 decisions on major cases and polls showing an increasingly unpopular Supreme Court, the proposal is obviously relevant to the current debate.
I have spent over ten years advocating for the expansion of the Court even though I often agree with the rulings of swing Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. Putting aside the possibility that my proposal is based on principle rather than partisanship, I have never encountered a law professor advocating for incivility as a type of personal signature (a reaction shared by other leading legal bloggers like Scott Greenfield). I was hoping that raising the issue would result is a bit of self-reflection and possible dialogue on the loss of civility in our national discourse. While I did not expect an apology from Professor Althouse, I did not expect an academic to affirm the value of name calling and incivility — even when the blog is shown to be wrong on critical allegations.
My only point is that the overall commentary following the column shows once again how we have lost the tradition of civil discourse in this country. The tendency today is to personally attack people with whom you disagree and suggest hidden agendas or conspiracies. I am always delighted to see spirited debate following a column, including those with whom I disagree. As in a classroom, I value the debate for its own sake — forcing people to consider alternative views and possibilities. The current tendency to shout down other voices with shrill or sophomoric attacks is degrading our politics and our society.
UPDATE: Professor Althouse has written a long line by line rebuttal to my objections. I encourage you to read it and, I may be missing a subtlety, but I do not expect an apology. You can judge for yourself if it is credible that she now insists that she was not in any way criticizing me personally or suggesting that I am advancing the proposal because of my disagreement with how the Court’s decision. For example, she insists that she was objecting to the Washington Post and not me in a blog where she quotes me in saying that “Roosevelt may have had the right idea for the wrong reason.” Her response to my statement is to say “Oh, spare me the bullshit. It’s the same reason. You don’t like the opinions.” [emphasis add] This follows the title of the blog: “Don’t like the Supreme Court’s decision? Propose a Court-packing plan!” Professor Althouse then goes on, after insisting that she was not questioning my motivations as opposed to the Post, to explore suspicions that I am motivated by my dislike for opinions of the Court — even though I have been advocating for an expansion of the Court for over ten years. In the end, our two statements offer strikingly different views of the need for civility, which Professor Althouse continues to call so much “bullshit.” I obviously do not take that view. We have had valuable exchanges with academics and others (including regulars on this blog) who disagree with my columns. I originally spoke out because of what I viewed to be the uncivil and unprofessional tenor of the blog by Professor Althouse as well as the suggestion of an unprincipled motivation for calling for the expansion of the Court. I confess that I do believe law professors have a higher burden in preserving civility in discourse. We do not always succeed and passions can overcome judgment on occasion. However, as both lawyers and academics, I do not believe that we should not add to the already stifling level of ad hominem attacks on the Internet. You can judge for yourself on the merits of the dispute and everyone can return to the site that most appeals to them.