Opinion: The trouble with celebrity politicians

Judges calling balls and strikes are the last line of defense…

  • By Rich Monia
  • Saturday, December 12, 2020 7:30am
  • Opinion

“Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes.” Chief Justice John Roberts stated at his confirmation hearing 15 years ago. His job is “to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.” That’s why good judges rarely attain the ego satisfying status of celebrity.

Robert’s rather humble view of his role in America’s democracy is rare these days. We have a celebrity-turned-politician in the White House. And politicians-turned-celebrities everywhere else.

In sports, it’s the blown call — or consistently bad ones — that memorializes the names of umpires and referees. Getting the obvious calls correct isn’t just easy. They leave players and coaches with nothing to argue about.

That’s how Roberts and the U.S. Supreme Court viewed the Pennsylvania case seeking to overturn the state’s election results. The pitch thrown by the Republican Party plaintiffs was so wild that without hearing oral arguments the justices delivered a simple one sentence rebuke fully captured in one dismissive word — “denied.”

Lower court rulings have been no less decisive. As David French at The Dispatch succinctly explains, they’ve categorically failed to make valid legal claims and haven’t been supported by admissible evidence. And by asking to disqualify millions of votes, they weren’t seeking lawful relief.

French’s opinion is armed with a legal background. Before becoming a prolific writer, he graduated from Harvard Law School, served as a senior counsel for two conservative Christian non-profit organizations and was a judge advocate general in the U.S. Army Reserve.

But a warning about celebrity-ism in America which he published several days earlier offers a different insight into how the judges ruled in these cases. Their decisions weren’t written for stadium fans or the flocks and mobs on social media.

The article was titled ‘The Crisis of Christian Celebrity.’ After noting how scandalous marital infidelities have chased prominent Christian leaders from their pulpits, he writes “the celebrity’s apparent talent and relevant success teach him to do the things he must not do: to trust himself, to believe that he is a person of virtue, to believe that he is important.” And “the copious flattery of starstruck fans” serves as a reminder of their sense of their importance.

Visibility is essential to everything French describes. But whereas athletes and actors showcase their extraordinary talents on the screen and playing field, judges do their work in boring courtrooms or behind the closed doors of their chambers. And they produce nothing with entertainment value.

Like everything, there are exceptions. One is the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But it wasn’t until she was in her 80s that she gained celebrity status for her enduring commitment to protect and extend the rights of women and minorities. It was with humble reluctance that she even acknowledged her public popularity.

Before that, Ginsburg’s talents and dedication were greatly admired by her colleagues on the Supreme Court and across the American judiciary, even among those who disagreed with her legal views. She didn’t need and didn’t seek a mass of social media followers to understand the seat she occupied made her an important figure in our society.

I’d be suspicious of any judge who blasts out tweets like a celebrity in need of constant attention. Which is exactly what too many politicians do.

Unfortunately, their life of public service begins by building a following. They have to convince voters they’re smarter and more honest, hardworking, selfless and trustworthy than their opponents. They can easily wind up flattering themselves in the process.

Losing delivers a dose of humility. But if they win and hope to keep winning, they’ve got to maintain the perception of popularity. In the 21st Century of never-ending campaigns, that means being constantly visible on Twitter and Facebook.

By following them on those platforms, we’ve elevated many of them to minor celebrities. It’s there that the textualized sound bites they deliver becomes more important than the substance of their work. Which makes them less like representatives of the people and more like pundits making noise on television.

Fortunately, the third branch of government is still standing. Because right now, judges calling balls and strikes are the last line of defense preventing America from becoming a celebrity-infested banana republic.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a letter to the editor or My Turn.

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