Amy Howe, Interpreting the Supreme Court: Finding Meaning in the Justices’ Personal Experiences

68 Fla. L. Rev. 393

Abstract

At his 2004 confirmation hearing, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. famously compared the role of a Supreme Court Justice to that of a baseball umpire and promised “to remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes.” Roberts likely intended this to mean that he would serve as a neutral arbiter of the law, who simply applies the existing rules to reach the correct outcome. But in judging, as in baseball, that is not as easy as it sounds, especially when one of the primary criteria on which the Court relies to choose its cases is whether the lower courts are divided on the legal question presented by a case. In the absence of a clear right or wrong answer, the Justices often have to operate in a gray area, and this is where their life experiences may play a role, because two people may—based on their own unique life experiences—see the same things very differently. To be sure, life experiences may not always be determinative, particularly when the Justices are dealing with more technical areas of the law. And even Justices who share similar life experiences may nonetheless view an issue very differently, as is the case with Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor when it comes to affirmative action. The key is to look at a Justice’s entire life experience collectively because that is what the Justice will rely on to make decisions and that is what will inform how she sees the tough questions that the Court decides.

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