It’s very difficult to learn the background and fundamental judicial philosophy of candidates for judge. For one thing, most candidates have never held public office before, so there is little public discourse or scrutiny of their political or philosophical positions available for review. Every voter wants to know if a candidate is conservative, liberal, or moderate. What are their personal beliefs and opinions on the current issues of the day: gay rights, immigration, terrorism, abortion, unions, guns… you name it. But judicial candidates are largely barred from sharing these opinions in California by the Judicial Canons.
Yet there is a “magic” question that all judicial candidates can freely answer, and that truly reveals a great deal about their approach to the law, justice, and many of those hot-button issues. Most simply: which United States Supreme Court Justice, living or dead, do you admire most and why?
Here are answers from some of the judicial candidates, who chose to answer, in their own words.
MEGAN WAGNER, Seat # 3. The Supreme Court Justice I most admire is John Marshall Harlan who dissented in Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice Harlan was neither an ideologue nor a flashy judge. He did not seek attention or confuse his role with the role of the legislature. But when he saw an injustice, segregated public transportation, he knew that the law should not tolerate such unfair and disparate treatment of individuals and he spoke up against it. Justice Harlan’s dissent was an act of courage as it espoused a position that was not a popular one in the society of his time; but it was the right one.
KAREN SCHTAZLE, Seat # 49. Although there are various justices that I have admired and respected, Justice Stephen Gerald Breyer embodies the neutrality and governance required in the apt imposition of standards established by our forefathers. Justice Breyer grew up in a middle class environment and his parents were active in local politics. He believed in public service, attended Harvard and served as Assistant to the U.S. Attorney General. He was an aid to Edward Kennedy and Chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Although he married wealthy it did not affect his lifestyle. President Clinton nominated him as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and he took his seat August 3, 1994.He follows a philosophy of judicial restraint and appears to distrust a broad legal theory. His beliefs make him deferential to law enforcement but he does not ‘rubber stamp’ in accordance with other branches of government. Both conservatives and liberals respect him. He has shown individuality with strong ideals and a belief in the need for empathy, such that he is regarded as competent and impartial by both sides. He is seen to occupy a position in the middle of the Court. Although conservative, he has frequently voted with the liberal Justices, and is taken seriously. His middle of the road tendency is what I find most remarkable. It is a sign of an independent thinker with respect for our constitution and the interpretation of law in a factually fluid fair manner.
SCOTT STEINER, Seat # 49. I will say that I’ve always been a great admirer of former Chief Justice William Rehnquist. When he first began serving on the Court in 1972, and for many years thereafter, he was known as the “Lone Ranger” because of the frequency with which he found himself the lone dissenter. I remember quite profoundly in law school noticing how his opinions slowly, over the years, went from lone dissents to majority opinions. He shaped American law and jurisprudence. But he did so with a nuanced, thoughtful, steady approach. There was perhaps less bombast associated with his opinions than with some of the other more colorful members of the court, but I admired the persuasive, dedicated, absolutely disciplined nature of his opinions. Still, he had the common sense to recognize certain areas of law that had become so engrained in the American consciousness that his personal belief in their rightness or wrongness was of less relevance. In many ways he initiated the modern notion that federal legislative power is not only not absolute, but that it is actually subject to restraint, and showed a willingness to do exactly that. Personally, though I never had the good fortune to meet him, by all accounts he was a very unpretentious person and well-liked by his colleagues. Despite a towering intellect and an intimidating academic and professional pedigree, he was apparently very good-humored in private. For these reasons I admire him very much.