Empathy Versus Law

Walter E. Williams

5/20/2009 12:01:00 AM - Walter E. Williams

President Obama's articulated criteria for his nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court is: "We need somebody who's got the heart to recognize -- the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young teenage mom, the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that's the criteria by which I'm going to be selecting my judges."

What is the role of a U.S. Supreme Court justice? A reasonable start for an answer is the recognition that our Constitution represents the rules of the game. A Supreme Court justice has one job and one job only namely; he is a referee. There is nothing complicated about this. A referee's job, whether he is a football referee or a Supreme Court justice, is to know the rules of the game and make sure that they are evenly applied without bias. Do we want referees to allow empathy to influence their decisions? Let's look at it using this year's Super Bowl as an example.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have won six Super Bowl titles, seven AFC championships and hosted 10 conference games. No other AFC or NFC team can match this record. By contrast, the Arizona Cardinals' last championship victory was in 1947 when they were based in Chicago. In anyone's book, this is a gross disparity. Should the referees have the empathy to understand what it's like to be a perennial loser and what would you think of a referee whose decisions were guided by his empathy? Suppose a referee, in the name of compensatory justice, stringently applied pass interference or roughing the passer violations against the Steelers and less stringently against the Cardinals. Or, would you support a referee who refused to make offensive pass interference calls because he thought it was a silly rule? You'd probably remind him that the league makes the rules, not referees.

I'm betting that most people would agree that football justice requires that referees apply the rules blindly and independent of the records or any other characteristic of the two teams. Moreover, I believe that most people would agree that referees should evenly apply the rules of the games even if they personally disagreed with some of the rules.

The relationship between Supreme Court justices and the U.S. Constitution should be identical to that of referees and football rules. The status of a person appearing before the court should have absolutely nothing to do with the rendering of decisions. That's why Lady Justice, often appearing on court buildings, is shown wearing a blindfold. It is to indicate that justice should be meted out impartially, regardless of identity, power or weakness. Also, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Men should know the rules by which the game is played. Doubt as to the value of some of those rules is no sufficient reason why they should not be followed by the courts." The legislative branch makes the rules, not judges.

Interventionists often make their case for bending the rules based on the unfairness of outcomes such as differences in income, education and wealth. After all, how can the game of life possibly be fair when some people's yearly income totals in the hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, while many others scarcely earn twenty or thirty thousand dollars? Some people find that argument persuasive but it's nonsense. Income distribution is an outcome and fairness cannot be determined by outcomes. It's the same with football. The Steelers winning six Super Bowl titles and Arizona winning none is an outcome and cannot be used to determine football fairness. Fairness in either case must be settled by process questions such as: Were the rules unbiased and evenly applied? If so, any outcome is just and actions based on empathy would make it unjust.