Monday, February 14, 2011

On Justice Thomas' silence . . . and a journalist's odd choice

In Sunday’s New York Times – on its front page, no less – we find an article by Adam Liptak about Justice Thomas and his reticent to speak from the bench. Anyone familiar with the Court will not be surprised by this story. In fact, they will be surprised that the story was published by the Times in the first place, and on the front page to boot. 

This is not to say that the story is not interesting in its own right and worth reading. But not for the reasons you might think. 

For one, it may well be the case that Justice Thomas is really not that interesting, or a deep thinker. Why assume that he – or any other justice -- is? Why assume that mere mortals are transformed into philosopher kings simply by virtue of donning a judicial robe

Something else entirely caught my eye. Later in the article, Liptak quotes from a piece in the Florida Law Review by a third year law student. Two things about this choice on Liptak’s part raises eyebrows. The first is the fact that he chose to publish a piece from the Florida Law Review, hardly considered a leading review by those who have nothing better to do than to rank these things. The second is that the author is a law student, and not some major eminence in the field of law. It must be the case, then, that whatever this student wrote is simply brilliant, the kind of thing that Liptak could only get from this piece and nowhere else. But that is not quite so. The quote is not that insightful: “If Justice Thomas holds a strong view of the law in a case, he should offer it . . . . Litigants could then counter it, or try to do so. It is not enough that Justice Thomas merely attend oral argument if he does not participate in argument meaningfully.” 

So why is Liptak quoting from this obscure piece? All that makes sense is that the author is David Karp, described by Liptak as a “veteran journalist.” This might mean – and this is the only way that any of this makes any sense – that Liptak and Karp are friends, acquaintances, or something along those lines. Liptak is essentially doing a friend a favor. For make no mistake, to get quoted in a Times piece is a much bigger deal in the law schools than it deserves to be. Go to a random law school website and tell me what you find: right in the front, law schools love to advertise how their professors are quoted and cited across the globe. I find the practice quite embarrassing, for it is clear that getting cited or quoted is more a reflection of the size and quality of one’s rolodex than of whatever it is one is saying. (If anybody out there ever finds a quote that is not a reflection of one's standing and networks rather than the worth of the quote itself, please pass it along; I have yet to see one).

Justice Thomas is not about to start speaking – he does not appear to have it in him – and the law schools are not about to stop advertising every breath one of their professor takes that is noted in print. 

Who do they think they are kidding?

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