Jun 262012

The Supreme Court happens to be in the process of getting the last of their opinions out before they go on a break. That means it’s time for me to hear every opinionated person say “Thank God they got that right!” or “OMG THEY TOTALLY GOT IT WRONG!” This period is also known as “Blake becomes a further recluse so he doesn’t yell at people in public time”.

I’m not trying to highlight the people who go around saying the Supreme Court is wrong, it’s just that they are, in fact, much more empathic. But that does not increase or decrease the applicability of this blog to a person who takes either side.1 Additionally, there are plenty of people who this does not apply to, and they should recognize this fact pretty quickly; this is why the title says “there’s a good chance“. To make it more concrete, I think I’m being conservative when I say that this applies to 99.9% of the population. So, why is this?

We’ll start by rewarding the smart people. If you see the distinction between the following two comments, and understand where I’m going, you’re way, way ahead of the game.

  1. “I am of the opinion that the Supreme Court got the Citizen’s United2 case completely wrong.”
  2. “I am of the opinion that corporations and other large entities covered under Citizen’s United should not be allowed to donate to campaigns (or whatever the specific issue is).”

Even if you just see the distinction, you’re doing pretty damn okay. What’s the difference? The first one is explicitly saying that the Supreme Court is WRONG, whereas the second is not passing judgment on the Supreme Court’s accuracy, but merely stating that you don’t like the results. Now, there are at least two types of people who say something like comment #1: those who use it as a quick proxy for stating the second, and those who actually think the Supreme Court (or any judicial body, for that matter) got it right…or wrong. The former just needs to stop saying it, mainly so you won’t be lumped in with the latter group. The latter group needs to understand why there’s a good chance they’re idiots.

Let’s look at an example from my own life to illustrate why this is. Not too long ago, a relative informs my father, who is a dentist, that his tooth is hurting. My dad decided to pull the tooth. Now, what would happen if I told my dad, “That’s wrong, you should do a root canal instead, because then he’d get to save the tooth.” (This is not a completely unbelievable scenario, since I probably would have done that when I was twelve years old.) He would probably give me a look like “WTF?” and ask me who the hell I thought I was. Now, I’ve seen my share of root canals and extractions, and I’m well aware that root canals are frequently done to fix tooth pain. But what kind of idiot would I have to be to insert my own judgment for someone who has been to dental school and practiced dentistry for ~35 years? The same kind of person who typically makes comment #1 above, and means it.

Now, there are differences between what judges do and what dentists do, sure. Judges deal in a world of abstract reasoning, rationalization, interpretation, and a world full of gray. Dentistry may involve investigation and reasoning, but it’s completely different than that which judges do. There may still be areas of gray, like what procedure is the best in a given set of circumstances, etc., but it’s far more concrete than the legal world. But at the same time, there are still certain processes that are followed to arrive at legal opinions: statute text must be interpreted, evidence of the statute author’s intent may need to be looked at, prior case law may need to be analyzed, etc. Judge’s opinions do not exist in a vacuum, there is a certain amount of outside knowledge that must go into them, just as there is a certain amount of knowledge that must be known (or learned through research) to be able to practice dentistry.

But in the end, if you don’t have a certain level of knowledge, you are not qualified to give your opinion on whether a root canal or an extraction should be formed, nor are you qualified to give an opinion on whether a judicial opinion is “right” or “wrong”. I should highlight that I said “you are not qualified“. You absolutely may have an opinion, without a doubt. But then your opinion is is uninformed, has no basis to stand on, and, whether right or wrong, is stupid.

“But Blake, I can go read what the Constitution says right now!” That’s great, and true. But are you going to interpret it based on what you think it means in the context of 2012, or in the context it was written? Are you going to go read cases that have actually tried to answer the question that’s being asked? Again, simply reading what the Constitution says is not enough. I’ll be perfectly honest, if you can go from “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” to “corporations should not be able to donate to political campaigns” (or the opposite conclusion) with nothing more, there’s something really wrong with your thought processes.

At an absolute minimum, to be able to form some opinion as to the accuracy of a judicial opinion, you have to:

  1. Read the opinion. The. Entire. Thing. That means all the dissents to, if there are any.
  2. Understand the basic parameters of the law that is at issue. For example, in Citizen’s United, you need to know something about First Amendment jurisprudence.
  3. Read any precedent that is in contention, and probably any precedent that one side cites and the other doesn’t.

Again, this is merely a minimum amount of work that you have to do. If textual analysis is involved, you probably have to go learn about the different types of textual analysis that is used, and read related cases. And when you read cases, it’s not just skimming them; you have to really understand them. You might even have to go look at other cases that rely on that particular case, to see how others have interpreted it. Even the minimum will be much more work than most people are willing to put in.

Why do people tend to do this so much with legal topics? If I told my mother that I chose MongoDB over MySQL for some web application I’m building, under no circumstances would she tell me that was a good/bad decision. Very few non-dentists would tell my dad whether a root canal or extraction was the best option. Most people have had someone tell them they were wrong, or should have done something else, without having all the information necessary to come to that conclusion, or without “having been there”. But almost everyone has an opinion on whether a high-profile (or low-profile, if they are aware of it) judicial opinion is right or wrong.

It’s understandable, really. It directly impacts their lives in a visible way. The topics are such that anyone can readily form an opinion about what they think is better, and most places where someone might learn about about a case will give the basic facts. We’re wired to be able to quickly process facts and come up with a conclusion as to whether they represent something “good” or “bad” (even though this heuristic analysis may have a low accuracy rate). In other words, many issues of law are relevant to one’s life and lend themselves to quick judgment. But the reality is, they do still require specialized knowledge.

But there is hope! As long as you possess some basic reading skills (this includes reading comprehension) and some ability to reason, you can find all the information you need. Good luck learning how to do a root canal by watching videos or reading information on the Internet or in the library. You can learn everything a first year law student (or law grad, probably) learns on your own…the knowledge really isn’t so special that you have to go to school to learn it, unlike many professions where it’s not feasible otherwise.

And just to be clear, I’m not saying you can’t have an opinion on the matter. You are completely free to think that entities (such as corporations and unions) should be restricted in their ability to contribute campaigns, even completely barred from it. You can have the opinion that ObamaCare should be entirely legal, or not. All of these are fine opinions to have, and are plenty debatable. All I’m saying is, if you have an opinion that a particular court got a particular opinion right or wrong, based on nothing other than the fact that you don’t like the outcome, or the quotes that are fed to you sound good or bad, or otherwise without doing the minimum amount of research or having the minimum amount of requisite knowledge, you are probably an idiot.

The next time you start to say that a court got something right or wrong, stop and ask yourself, “Do I actually know if they got it wrong (or right), or am I just upset at the result?” If it’s the latter, perfect! Say that. Otherwise, make sure you actually have some basis for your opinion.

In other other words, practice deference, and avoid telling someone they’re wrong unless you’re willing to actually do the necessary legwork to make sure you know enough to make an informed opinion.

Update: I should clarify something, in case someone makes the easy inference: having a legal education does NOT mean this does not apply to you, whether you are still in law school or not. Although having a legal education provides a better foundation, that just means a person will have a better understanding of the subject from the start, or understand the basics better, or know how to research better. It doesn’t mean they actually know what they are talking about regarding a specific subject. Unless a person practices in a particular area of the law, actively keeps up with it, or had a law school course that discussed the subject in-depth, there’s a good chance they’ll have to do the same research a layperson would have to do.

1. Technically, in the case of appellate court opinions, people who claim that the opinion was “right”, by default, have a stronger basis than those who claim the opinion was “wrong”, thanks to the fact that they can always point out that they are siding with the majority. So, technically, one could argue that this blog applies slightly less than them, but in the end, true or not, it still applies.

2. I am merely using the Citizen’s United case as an example, since a related opinion came out today. There are plenty of other examples, and will be plenty more. The healthcare law opinion is slated to come out on Thursday, and will undoubtedly cause much more uproar than anything that came out today.

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  2 Responses to “Why there’s a good chance you’re an idiot if you say the Supreme Court is right or wrong.”

  1. […] however, I highly recommend you go read this previous blog post I wrote. It’s […]

  2. Just saw this page for the first time. Excellent article.

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