Ju­ris im­pru­dent

Stephen Loosley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ON re­tir­ing from the White House, Harry Tru­man was asked if he had any re­grets about his pres­i­dency. As leg­end has it, he replied la­con­i­cally, ‘‘ Yes. And both of them are on the Supreme Court.’’ This rep­re­sents ev­ery US pres­i­dent’s night­mare: ap­point­ing an as­so­ciate jus­tice for life to the na­tion’s high­est court on the ba­sis of rep­u­ta­tion and an as­sumed ju­di­cial phi­los­o­phy, to see both dis­carded dur­ing en­su­ing decades. Think of Dwight D. Eisen­hower’s ap­point­ment of Earl War­ren as chief jus­tice by way of il­lus­tra­tion.

The ten­sions and frus­tra­tions that oc­cupy the space be­tween the White House and the court form the core of Christo­pher Buck­ley’s satir­i­cal novel, Supreme Courtship . Buck­ley dis­plays that sense of the ab­surd and a Belt­way wit that turned his novel on Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ists, Thank You for Smok­ing , into a mi­nor cult clas­sic of cor­rup­tion and de­ceit.

The US Supreme Court has been a thorn in the side of Amer­i­can pres­i­dents since Mar­bury v Madi­son es­tab­lished the terms of the court’s power of ju­di­cial re­view in 1803. The court was, of course, orig­i­nally de­signed by the con­sti­tu­tional drafters to be the third tier of US fed­eral gov­ern­ment. But it is doubt­ful the founders fore­saw the court’s evo­lu­tion into the pow­er­ful tri­bunal it has be­come.

Cer­tainly, Thomas Jef­fer­son was in­fu­ri­ated by the court’s over­sight. Abra­ham Lin­coln, dur­ing the cri­sis of the Civil War, sim­ply ig­nored rul­ings that did not fit with his war strat­egy, in­clud­ing some on habeas cor­pus. Franklin Roo­sevelt was so de­ter­mined to curb the court’s ob­struc­tive in­tru­sions into his New Deal leg­isla­tive pro­gram dur­ing the 1930s that he en­deav­oured to ex­pand the body and stack it with loy­al­ists. FDR’s ‘‘ court pack­ing’’ plan of 1937 failed the test of con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity in the Se­nate but, re­mark­ably, the court was far more co-op­er­a­tive af­ter the threat from the White House had re­ceded.

At the heart of Supreme Courtship is the at­tempt by the ami­able pres­i­dent Don­ald Van­der­damp, lag­ging badly in the polls, to fill a Supreme Court va­cancy oc­ca­sioned by an in­cum­bent jus­tice los­ing touch with re­al­ity. Van­der­damp fails spec­tac­u­larly on two oc­ca­sions, cour­tesy of the chair­man of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, se­na­tor Dex­ter Mitchell.

For read­ers at­tracted to the idea of iden­ti­fy­ing real char­ac­ters with fic­tional cre­ations, Mitchell may bear a pass­ing re­sem­blance to Amer­i­can vice-pres­i­dent-elect Joe Bi­den.

Al­though Buck­ley clearly sym­pa­thises with his pres­i­dent, he thinks Mitchell quite ridicu­lous. If a com­puter were pro­grammed to de­sign a pres­i­dent of the United States, it might very well gen­er­ate Dex­ter Mitchell. Ev­ery­thing about him seemed, in­deed, cal­cu­lated. And yet for all his qual­i­fi­ca­tions, Dex­ter some­how added up to less than the sum of his con­sid­er­able parts. His epic lo­quac­ity was not an as­set. Suc­ces­sive cam­paign ad­vis­ers had tried without suc­cess to get him to give briefer an­swers, but noth­ing had stemmed the lo­g­or­rheic tide, the tsunami of sub­or­di­nate clauses and par­en­thet­i­cal asides, the in­ex­orable mud­slide of anecdotage. His cam­paign ‘‘ lis­ten­ing tours’’ were oc­ca­sions of mirth among po­lit­i­cal re­porters, since it was the peo­ple he met who did the lis­ten­ing. Dex­ter Mitchell would hap­pily ex­press him­self on any is­sue, at any time, at any place. Scathing enough, but Buck­ley ex­cels him­self when it comes to the char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions of his jus­tices of the Supreme Court.

The chief jus­tice, De­clan Hard­wether, has a drink­ing prob­lem, which he en­deav­ours to dis­guise through co­pi­ous con­sump­tion of mouth­wash. In his darker pe­ri­ods, he is sui­ci­dal.

The court’s in­tel­lec­tual pow­er­house, the acer­bic Sil­vio San­ta­maria, an ad­viser to the Vat­i­can on in­ter­na­tional law, a Knight of Malta and a for­mer Je­suit sem­i­nar­ian, per­haps may be likened to Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia of the Roberts Supreme Court.

Jus­tice Ruth ‘‘ Ruth­less’’ Richter, a court lib­eral, is Buck­ley’s bleed­ing heart. Jus­tice Haro, of Ja­panese-Amer­i­can eth­nic­ity, has an in­tel­lect and com­pet­i­tive­ness that un­der­pins an ag­gres­sively blunt man­ner. Ishig­uro ‘‘ Mike’’ Haro was the first Ja­panese-Amer­i­can Supreme Court jus­tice, and per­sua­sive ev­i­dence that Asians re­ally are in­tel­lec­tu­ally su­pe­rior to the other races. His hobby was do­ing The Times of Lon­don crossword while blind­folded. He was not shy of ex­press­ing deeply held opin­ions, such as that pres­i­dent Tru­man was — as he put it, per­haps un­wisely, within range of some­one’s cell­phone video cam­era — a runty geno­ci­dal hab­er­dasher for hav­ing dropped the A-bomb on some of his rel­a­tives. But Buck­ley’s most en­gag­ing jus­tice is the African-Amer­i­can Cris­pus Gala­van­ter ( not Clarence Thomas, surely!), who made his rep­u­ta­tion rep­re­sent­ing the Ku Klux Klan be­fore the Idaho Supreme Court, manag­ing to lose the case and bank­rupt the racist or­der in the process.

As with his ear­lier satir­i­cal ef­forts, Buck­ley takes re­al­ity and gives it a half turn. Frus­trated by the Se­nate, pres­i­dent Van­der­damp de­cides on a rad­i­cal so­lu­tion. Two out­stand­ing ju­rists have been re­jected on spe­cious grounds, in­clud­ing one in­volv­ing a school film re­view of the movie To Kill a Mock­ing­bird . So Van­der­damp looks be­yond the nor­mal ju­di­cial pool.

He de­cides to se­lect judge ‘‘ Pep­per’’ Cartwright from the tele­vi­sion court­room re­al­ity se­ries Court­room Six. Pep­per has ex­traor­di­nar­ily high rat­ings and Van­der­damp con­fronts his neme­sis, Mitchell, with a nom­i­nee whose un­de­ni­able ap­peal and folksy charm leave him in ex­quis­ite po­lit­i­cal dif­fi­culty.

Buck­ley, like his fa­ther, William F. Buck­ley, is a Wash­ing­ton in­sider and a noted con­ser­va­tive, of con­sid­er­able in­tel­lec­tual in­flu­ence.

But where his fa­ther de­ployed polemics to good ef­fect, the son re­lies on a won­der­ful sense of hu­mour. Buck­ley fell out with con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans, when he en­dorsed Demo­cratic can­di­date Barack Obama in the 2008 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. It cost him his back page col­umn on the Na­tional Re­view .

His new novel suc­ceeds on sev­eral lev­els. True, there are flaws, such as a ro­mance that seems im­prob­a­ble and char­ac­ters who are some­times a lit­tle too pre­dictable. But he is en­ter­tain­ing and funny, and some of the novel’s best mo­ments, as when the court hears an ap­peal from a con­victed felon su­ing a firearms man­u­fac­turer for his weapon fail­ing him dur­ing a rob­bery and thus pre­vent­ing him from shoot­ing a po­lice of­fi­cer, are not too dis­tant from US case law.

Un­like those two nom­i­na­tions of Tru­man’s to the US Supreme Court, Buck­ley does not dis­ap­point, and no one is likely to re­gret read­ing this book. Stephen Loosley is a for­mer ALP na­tional pres­i­dent and se­na­tor and serves on the board of the Aus­tralian Amer­i­can Lead­er­ship Di­a­logue.

Thorn in the side: The US Supreme Court in Wash­ing­ton, DC, pro­vides the stim­u­lus for an­other satir­i­cal out­ing from Christo­pher Buck­ley

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