By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Andrew M. Grossman
4 February 2019 in the Wall Street Journal
At a time the First Amendment rights of free speech and association are under assault, it’s disheartening to see the judiciary getting in on the act. At issue are the judge-made rules governing judges themselves. A draft advisory opinion circulated last month by the Committee on Codes of Conduct of the U.S. Judicial Conference recommends new restrictions on the First Amendment rights of federal judges as well as their law clerks and staff attorneys. The opinion is unconstitutional, and a sloppy bit of judging to boot.
The committee, made up of 15 jurists, proposes to bar judges and their staffers from membership in the Federalist Society and the liberal American Constitution Society. The opinion reasons that a judge’s impartiality and independence could reasonably be called into question if he belongs to what the committee deems ideological “advocacy groups.” But the committee provides no clear guidance as to which other groups are forbidden. It says only that judges remain free to join the American Bar Association but must avoid the Federalist Society and the ACS.
Federal judges aren’t stripped of their constitutional rights before donning their robes. Yet the opinion takes no account of the First Amendment at all. If it did, its authors would have been obliged to subject their ruling to “heightened scrutiny”—which means, among other things, that the government may impose limits only to achieve a compelling interest. Safeguarding public confidence in the fairness and integrity of the judiciary qualifies—but that’s not the end of the test.
Inconsistent restrictions, as the Supreme Court has put it, invariably raise “doubts about whether the government is in fact pursuing the interest it invokes, rather than disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.” And inconsistency abounds in the draft opinion.
The Committee gives a pass to the ABA even though it advocates positions that line up consistently with those of the Democratic Party through its official resolutions, lobbying, grass-roots advocacy and friend-of-the-court briefs.
The basis for that approval appears to be that the ABA has a “judicial division,” whose members, its bylaws assert, “will not be deemed to endorse” the association’s “positions and policies.” Perhaps the Federalist Society or ACS could overcome the ban by creating a similar judicial division—though the committee doesn’t say. But that would be meaningless for the Federalist Society, which doesn’t lobby or take positions on policy or political candidates. Its purpose is to facilitate open debate, allowing voices and perspectives often shut out of legal academia to be heard. For the society to adopt a special disclaimer for judicial members would be tantamount to confessing falsely that it has been misrepresenting its true purpose.
The committee also asserts that the ABA “is concerned with the improvement of the law in general and advocacy for the legal profession as a whole,” while the Federalist Society and ACS are not. Such favoritism should raise a red flag. Decades of case law condemns viewpoint-based discrimination by the government that favors one group over others.
The Supreme Court stated the rule plainly in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995): “When the government targets not subject matter but particular views taken by speakers on a subject, the violation of the First Amendment is all the more blatant. Viewpoint discrimination is thus an egregious form of content discrimination. The government must abstain from regulating speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction.”
The rule’s application here is clear: The committee may not play favorites, approving organizations because it thinks their views foster “improvement.” To avoid viewpoint discrimination while banning the Federalist Society and ACS, the committee would have to paint with a much broader brush, proscribing not only the ABA but also state bar associations (membership in which is often mandatory for those practicing law), affinity bars like the National Association of Women Lawyers and the Hispanic National Bar Association, and perhaps even churches—all of which take positions on issues that come before federal judges.
That would be foolish as well as unconstitutional. The Judicial Code of Conduct recognizes that “a judge should not become isolated from the society in which the judge lives” and that blocking judges from participation in civil society “is neither possible nor wise,” given their “unique position to contribute to the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice.” A viewpoint-neutral ban would run afoul of First Amendment tailoring requirements, which demand that a restriction’s scope be the minimum required to fulfill the government’s stated interest. Requiring judges to be monks is a step too far.
The Committee’s speech- and association-censoring approach simply cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment. So why not stick with the status quo, which focuses on impartiality? Its virtues include neutrality, familiarity, and appropriate deference to a federal judiciary that has proven its integrity and good sense through its conduct and the esteem in which it is held.
Federalist Society members have served as federal judges and law clerks for nearly 40 years without a serious suggestion of ethical impropriety. During that period nothing has changed about the organization’s activities or its purpose. What has changed is that it now faces regular attacks from political actors seeking to achieve their own ends by spreading falsehoods about a public-spirited organization. It is dismaying enough to see a committee of federal judges accept those falsehoods. Their willingness to disregard basic constitutional principles in the process is a dereliction.
Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They are members of the Federalist Society, and Mr. Grossman serves on its Free Speech and Election Law Executive Committee.