The Court as an Echo Chamber, Etc.

December 8, 2014

“I’m taking this case all the way to the Supreme Court,” are words heard occasionally in hot contested matters, most often where the chances of that happening are nil. The words do, though, provide a jumping off place for discussing an interesting new study.

Cases get heard by the U.S. Supreme after a grant of certiorari. The word translates roughly to “to be more fully informed” and, here, being more fully informed means having the Court grant the writ, so that it can illuminate us with its wisdom.

I’m not delving into process here very much. The Court does take a limited category of cases by direct appeal (as opposed to cert), and does have original jurisdiction in very limited instances. (Arizona v. California was a landmark water case which lasted for decades in the Supreme Court. The case was managed by special masters, hearing evidence and reporting to the Court, and was in the Court because it has original jurisdiction in cases between the states.)  Otherwise, it takes four votes in favor of review to get cert granted.

Reuters published The Echo Chamber on Monday. The report’s subtitle sums up its findings:  A small group of lawyers and its outsized influence at the U.S. Supreme Court.

I have read the report, as well as an excellent exchange between Supreme Court Reporter Joan Biskupic and Eric Citron at SCOTUblog. The story is fascinating—to me, anyway—and of a piece with so much we see in modern times.

Increasingly, power is concentrated, and concentrated among an elite group. The Court story focuses on high-priced specialists, who know how to push the right buttons to make things happen for their wealthy clients. In Congress, some want to debate how important it is or isn’t that our representatives look like us, yet on Meet the Press this past Sunday Chuck Todd reported that the average net worth of our Senators and Congressmen is $6m, and the median is $1m. Median family wealth in America? $134k. (Here’s the Meet the Press transcript.) Can these people represent us? Understand our issues and concerns? Read Why It Matters That Politicians Have No Experience of Poverty by Stephen Lurie for The Atlantic, from June 2, for a better appreciation of this problem.

Some of my partners and I discussed big v. small—really what The Echo Chamber amounts to—on Tuesday at lunch. One among us—not me—brought up How Wall Street Bent Steel by Nelson Schwartz for the New York Times on December. (I had read the article.) Timken is all about ball bearings and specialty steel products, and about being critical to the viability of Canton, Ohio, and an investor the group forced it to split into two companies not long ago, only because it would likely increase the company’s share price. (Lots of concerns now about takeovers, offshoring, etc.)

The article tells a fascinating story about power, and in many ways it’s the same story Reuters tells in The Echo Chamber. In both cases power has been concentrated, and the goal is immediate/short-term gain. Business interests control the Supreme Court, more and more, because they can pay the attorneys who get their cases to the Court. Investor groups can force stable companies, built and designed for the long haul, to kow-tow to the whims of those who focus only on quarterly results.

Capitalism, 20-teens style, is putting a world of hurt on our future! I have no solutions, and I suspect we just have to live through this for a very long time. Recognizing the issues, however, cannot hurt!

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