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Study: SCOTUS is a melting pot of ideologies

The ideology of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court has always been a topic of discussion and debate, and with hot-button issues before the Court like the health care law mandate, immigration and affirmative action, the chatter is louder than ever. But just where do the justices sit on the ideological scale?

According to a news study, the justices are not a band of judicial activists, as some accuse. Their diverse views largely mirror those of Americans, according to researchers.

“Despite its intentional isolation from popular pressure, the Court’s decisions are not out of line with public preferences,” write Stephen Jessee of the University of Texas and Neil Malhotra of Stanford University in the unpublished paper “Ideological Proximity and Support for the Supreme Court,” according to the Washington Post. “This contrasts with popular images of judges as rogue activists.”

According to the study, the Court’s most conservative justice is Justice Clarence Thomas, whose views lie to the right of 97 percent of Americans surveyed. Justice Antonin Scalia was second, with views that are more conservative than about 89 percent of Americans.

On the other end of the scale, retired Justice John Paul Stevens was seen as the most left-leaning jurist, with views that are more liberal than 85 percent of surveyed Americans. He just beat out Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is to the left of 83 percent of those surveyed.

Could Thomas be the presidential game changer?

With no clear frontrunner in the GOP presidential primary race, some are saying the contest could go all the way to the convention. And if no clear winner is chosen by the delegates on their first vote, support could be thrown behind an entirely new candidate, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or – Justice Clarence Thomas?

That is a possible scenario, according to the Daily Beast’s  Adam Winker.

“Far-fetched?  Maybe,” Winkler writes. “But a Thomas candidacy would energize Republicans in a way that few other Republicans can and would steal tremendous media attention from President Barack Obama.”

Thomas’ strong Tea Party connection – his wife, Ginni, is a Tea Party supporter aligned with groups that advocate for the repeal of the health care law – could make the justice an attractive choice, Winkler suggests. So would his stance on environmental regulation, free markets and his own “up-by-his-bootstraps story of rising from incredible poverty,” he said.

Winkler noted that the idea of the Thomas presidency was first floated two years ago by legal bloggers David Lat and Kashmir Hill.

The Funniest Justice, week 9: Defining amusement

During oral arguments Tuesday in the case Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, which considers whether translators are covered under a federal statute that awards costs of ‘compensation for interpreters’ to prevailing parties, the petitioner’s attorney pointed out that the responded relied upon a single dictionary: Webster’s Third.

“Webster’s Third, as I recall, is the dictionary that defines ‘imply’ to mean ‘infer” and ‘infer’ to mean ‘imply,’” Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out. “It’s not a very good dictionary.”

That was one of four comments Scalia made this week that earned laughter from the audience, making him – once again – the week’s Funniest Justice. Justice Samuel Alito made an unusually strong showing, earning three laughs, as Chief Justice John G. Roberts drew two rounds of chuckles. Justice Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan each earned one laugh.

Here are the latest standings:

Justice Antonin Scalia: 35

Justice Stephen Breyer: 26

Chief Justice John G. Roberts: 14

Justice Anthony Kennedy: 6

Justice Samuel Alito: 4

Justice Elena Kagan: 2

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: 1

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: 1

Justice Clarence Thomas: 0

When is lying harmful? When it’s done on a date, Sotomayor says

One of the issues the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court had to grapple with Wednesday during oral arguments in the Stolen Valor Act case U.S. v. Alvarez was whether the act of lying harms someone.

The justices considered lying in various contexts outside the one at issue in the case, which involved a man who repeatedly said he was a decorated war veteran when he wasn’t.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor considered the harm that might be inflicted by another type of fib.

When someone claims to have “an honor they didn’t receive, … outside of the emotional reaction, where’s the harm?” Sotomayor began.  “And I’m not minimizing it. I too take offense when people make these kinds of claims, but I take offense when someone I’m dating makes a claim that’s not true.”

The comment drew laughter from the crowd. Later in the argument, the justice returned to the theme.

“On a date,” the justice said, a lie could “induce a young woman to date someone who she thinks is more of a professional,” and that could also “harm the parents [and] the family.”

Justice Thomas’ anniversary

Today marked a milestone for one of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Today’s Court session concluded without Justice Clarence Thomas asking a question or making a comment during oral arguments, making it a full six years since he has done so. The last comment from the justice during oral arguments came on Feb. 22, 2006.

The only time visitors to the court room hear Thomas’ fairly booming baritone is when the Court announces an opinion that the justice has authored – like yesterday, when he summarized the Court’s ruling in Kawashima v. Holder.

Supremes return

The Supreme Court’s mid-winter recess is officially over, as the justices return today to hear oral arguments, issue opinions and possibly add to the list of cases that will be heard next term. You can find all the newsworthy developments from today’s session later on this blog and on Lawyers USA’s Supreme Court Report.

Meanwhile, on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, a suspect has been detained in connection with the machete-point robbery of Justice Stephen Breyer, his wife and house guests earlier this month. Vedel Browne, the 28-year-old suspect in the robbery in Breyer’s vacation home, turned himself in after seeing on television reports that police were looking for him, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Scalia: For work-life balance, it’s hot in Cleveland … and LA

Justice Antonin Scalia doesn’t believe the life of a lawyer should be all work and no play.

“Try to find a practice that enables you to maintain a human existence, time for your family, your church or synagogue, community…Boy Scouts, Little League,” Scalia told law students at the University of Chicago on Monday, according to the Chicago Sun Times (via ABA Journal).

He said his own experience working in the Cleveland office of Jones Day provided the kind of work-life balance new lawyers should try to find.  “You should look for a place like that,” he said. “I’m sure they’re still out there. Maybe you have to go to Cleveland.”

Or maybe do some California dreamin’. “My son Gene went to Gibson Dunn,” he said. “Any big firm has the basic ethos of its head office and if the head office is in La La land, it’s gonna be a little laid back.”

Goldstein: Harris could be next Supreme Court pick

SCOTUSblog’s Tom Goldstein has pulled out his crystal ball in an effort to figure out who will be President Barack Obama’s next Supreme Court nominee, should the president be elected to a second term.

Ok, the Goldstein & Russell partner doesn’t have an actual clairvoyant instrument. Instead, he used a set of factors that Obama would likely consider in choosing a nominee should Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg resign during his second term. Those factors include, but are not in any way limited to, gender (the nominee almost certainly will be a woman) and race or ethnicity (there’s a good chance the nominee will also be a minority group member) since diversity has been a top priority for the Obama administration.

After considering dozens of possibilities, Goldstein concluded that the most likely candidate would be California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

The former San Francisco District Attorney, whose mother is from India and whose father is Jamaican-American, has “long been well known to the Administration, having been the first California elected official to endorse Barack Obama’s candidacy,” Goldstein writes. At 47, she is also the ideal age to be a Supreme Court nominee in the next three to four years.

But, Goldstein notes, Harris’ own future political plans may not make a Supreme Court nod that appealing to her. By the time Ginsburg retires, he wrote, Harris will either be running for reelection or newly reelected, with her sights possibly set next on the governor’s office.

Senate Democrats urge chief justice to release Supreme Court ethics rules

Several Democratic members of the Senate sent a letter to Chief Justice John G. Roberts urging him to release the Supreme Court’s ethics rules and confirm that the Court’s justices follow the same ethics code that binds other federal judges.

In the letter, sent Monday, Sens. Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Sheldon Whitehouse and Al Franken pressed the Court to be more transparent about the “internal resolutions the Court has adopted to address ethical issues.”

“Because we have a high regard for the Supreme Court and its Members, we emphasize that we do not intend to question or impugn the ethics of any individual Justice or the Court itself by making these requests,” the senators wrote.  “We have worked for many years to increase openness and transparency in government, and hope to increase public trust and confidence in all of our institutions, including the Supreme Court.  We firmly believe that full disclosure of the Court’s rules and its processes can only lead to greater confidence in the Court, and we look forward to working with you and the other members of the Court to achieve this goal.”

The request comes as critics of Justices Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan continue to raise questions about their participation in the cases challenging the federal health care law, which will be heard by the full Court next month. In his annual State of the Judiciary report, Roberts stressed that the justices abide by the same ethics rules as other federal judges, and rejected the suggestion that the Court’s ethics rules need to be changed.

Breyer unharmed by machete-wielding robber in the Caribbean

A Caribbean vacation took a scary turn for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and his wife last week.

Breyer and his wife were unharmed after being robbed by a machete-wielding intruder in their Caribbean vacation home last week, a Supreme Court spokesperson said Monday.

Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg told the Associated Press that  Breyer was in his vacation home on the West Indies island of Nevis with his wife, Joanna, and other guests. At about 9 p.m. Thursday night, they were confronted in the home by an intruder wielding a machete. The intruder took approximately $1,000 in cash and fled.

The robbery was reported to local authorities, but it is unknown whether an arrest has been made, Arberg said.

The Court is in its mid-winter recess, and the justices are scheduled to return for a closed-door conference Friday. Oral arguments are scheduled to resume Tuesday.

UPDATE: According to the St. Kitts Nevis Observer, FBI officials have traveled to the Caribbean island to investigate the incident.

Assistant Commissioner of Police Robert Liburd told the Observer that police are  “vigorously” investigating the matter. Liburd said he was appealing to the public to come forward with any information about the Breyer robbery as well as any information regarding the robbery of another foreign national vacationing on the island.