The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Yesterday, I criticized Justice Barrett's reported book deal with Sentinel, a conservative imprint. According to Politico, she will write about "how judges are not supposed to bring their personal feelings into how they rule." I struggle to understand why a publisher would give Barrett a sizable advance for a book on this topic. She has been a judge for a short time, and has decided very few cases. Perhaps Sentinel predicted that Justice Barrett will generate a lot of buzz. She will go on a splashy book tour. She will speak to a wide range of groups and sell her feelings-free approach to judging, whatever that is. I fear this premature project could be problematic for Justice Barrett's nascent tenure. Here, I will identify four principal problems.
First, what could Justice Barrett possibly have included in her book proposal about judging? I reviewed her appellate record last fall, and my tentative read was that she didn't have many tough cases. As one of the junior judge on the Seventh Circuit, it was unlikely she would even have been assigned any significant majority opinions. On the Supreme Court, Justice Barrett has written two majority opinions, neither significant. Her only important writing to date was to rule that worshippers could not sing in a California church during the pandemic. (I'll come back to this case later). Perhaps Professor Barrett had long ago worked out a complete theory of judging. If so, that's news to me. I reviewed her law review articles last year. I didn't see any evidence of some all-encompassing theory. And we certainly didn't hear much about that theory during her confirmation hearing. Her testimony was lovely, but she stuck to general platitudes. How deep can this theory be that she worked out in the span of a few months?
Second, my greatest fear for this book is that Justice Barrett will set lofty standards for judging that her detractors will use to criticize, and even pressure her. Let's say she praises the importance of stare decisis. What better way is there to keep feelings out of law than to stand by precedent? She may even cite her decision not to overrule Smith in Fulton. (She very conspicuously signaled that position during oral argument). Forevermore, if Justice Barrett wishes to overrule some precedent, her book can be used against her. Let's say she explains why she needs to keep her Catholic thought out of her decisions. In the future, her book will be used against her in abortion and death penalty cases. Let's say she insists that textualism is not a conservative jurisprudence, but is neutral. Hello Bostock II. (I query whether Justice Gorsuch's devotion to textualism in his book may have greased the skids for Bostock). Justice Barrett's job is too damn important to make unnecessary concessions in a book. Anything that can be used to exert influence over her in the future is an unforced error. Why? Why write this book now? Why give Justice Kagan ammunition to cow you into submission?
Third, I worry about the book tour. In my view, one of Justice Barrett's greatest assets was that she was not from the Acela corridor. She hails from what Justice Scalia called the "vast expanse in-between." This remove, I hoped, would insulate her from the demands of coastal-people-pleasing. Alas, writing a book–even with a conservative imprint–will force her to embark on a tour of coastal-people-pleasing. She will have to speak to audiences of different ideological perspectives. And she will have to custom-tailor her speech to appeal to those different audiences. Instead of giving a zealous defense of originalism, she will likely discuss some sort of watered-down jurisprudence. I know the switch, because I've done it before. I will give a very different accounting of originalism at, say, a Heritage Foundation talk, then I would at a Northeastern law school. Any good speaker knows his audience. Perhaps the only outlier on the Court is Justice Alito. He has an IDGAF approach to speeches. Look no further than his fiery 2020 Federalist Society address. I can't see Justice Barrett taking this sort of message on the road–at least if she wants to sell some books. I hope she carefully reads Scalia Speaks and uses the Boss's approach as a model.
Fourth, Sentinel, a conservative imprint, should have waited to see Justice Barrett's conservative record before forking over two million dollars. My next point is grotesque, but I need to make it. Conservatives will not buy a book written from a disappointing Justice. If Justice Barrett follows the track of Justice Kavanaugh, then conservatives will soon write her off. Look no further than her COVID case. Can Justice Barrett go in front of a religious group, and explain why she ruled against worshipers' right to sing? Of course, that question will be screened out. But people don't forget.
Going forward, Justice Barrett faces perverse incentives. On the one hand, she will be marketing her book to conservative buyers. (Liberals will never forgive her for taking the Ginsburg seat). On the other hand, she will be deciding cases that could alienate conservative buyers. I don't think the conflict of interest is inescapable, but it is obvious. After some reflection, I no longer think Supreme Court justices should write books, or go on book tours. There is a good reason why judges have limits on outside income. But, for whatever reason, multi-million dollar book advances are exempt.
I hope Justice Barrett takes this criticism in good faith. I had, and have high hopes for her. But so far, I question her judgment on and off the bench.
Update: A colleague reminds me of Justice Scalia's preface from Reading Law:
One final personal note: Your judicial author knows that there are some, and fears that there may be many, opinions that he has joined or written over the past 30 years that contradict what is written here—whether because of the demands of stare decisis or because wisdom has come late. Worse still, your judicial author does not swear that the opinions that he joins or writes in the future will comply with what is written here—whether because of stare decisis, because wisdom continues to come late, or because a judge must remain open to persuasion by counsel. Yet the prospect of "gotchas" for past and future inconsistencies holds no fear.