Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Supreme Court Justices Are People Too

Mark Tushnet

 Reflecting on the reported advance for Amy Coney Barrett's book: She has a salary of $265,600, a spouse who works for a small law firm, and seven kids, at least some of whom are going to go to college someday. Is it too -- I don't know -- banal to suggest that she might actually need the money? (I say this as a law professor who financed 11 years of higher education for my children out of my share of royalties on an admittedly widely used casebook.)

We (the legal academic community) tend to overlook the fact that Supreme Court justices are basically ordinary reasonably well-to-do people who have private lives, which for some include, shockingly, their families. That means that sometimes they face stresses of a common sort. Justice Willis Van Devanter, to take a truly obscure example, was a devoted husband to a wife who was medically fragile for his entire time on the Supreme Court -- and a devoted son to a mother who was continually pressed for money from Van Devanter's ne'er-do-well brother, who Willis tried as best he could to keep away from their mother. Justice Thurgood Marshall, who of course had a legal career that didn't make him well-to-do, had to borrow money from a friend in New York to finance his house purchase in a Washington suburb -- and then was hit with a large home-owners' fee he had to pay when the development's artificial lake basically flooded the community. I'm sure there are other examples of justices whose rather ordinary private lives were filled with some of the stresses that other rather ordinary people face. And some of those stresses are financial. 

One reason that biographies of most Supreme Court justices are boring or banal when they get to the justice's private life is that the private life is pretty much like that of a lot of other people, and it takes extraordinary talent (Evan Connell level talent) to make the story of such a life interesting. And, of course, many of the justices revel in creating the illusion that they are somehow special simply because they have a special piece of paper on the wall -- and because they tend to move in circles where lots of other people have good reasons for bowing and scraping in their presence. (Not every one has an ordinary private life, of course: Justice Douglas for one, along quite a few dimensions, and Gerry Gunther's biography of Learned Hand is worth reading if only for the parts about Hand's marriage.)

But overall what Mitt Romney had to say about corporations is worth saying about Supreme Court justices.

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