Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Jeffrey Rosen examines Obama, future of Supreme Court

Jeffrey Rosen makes a point during the 2009 Tresolini Lecture.

When most people think of President Barack Obama and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, they typically recall January 20, 2009. With most of the world watching, these two figures—often believed to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum—jointly fumbled the inaugural oath of office.

While this moment between the two has certainly gone down in history, Jeffrey Rosen, professor of law at The George Washington University Law School and legal affairs editor at The New Republic, believes their future interactions will be notable in part because they may defy conventional wisdom.

Rosen delivered the 2009 Tresolini Lecture entitled “Obama’s Constitution: The Future of the Supreme Court” on March 31 to an audience of students, faculty, community members and legal scholars. Rosen shared the perspectives he’s gained as a legal scholar and the personal insights he gleaned as a reporter.

“Jeffrey Rosen’s lecture was one that only someone with his intellectual gifts could muster: drawing on the past, to understand the present, and then pulling it all together to engage in sophisticated forecasting about the road ahead for the highest court in the land,” said Brian Pinaire, assistant professor of political science and organizer of the Tresolini Lecture.

An engaging speaker

Rosen specializes in constitutional law, criminal procedure and privacy issues. He is also a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book, The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America, recounts the history of the Supreme Court through the personal and philosophical rivalries that have transformed the law.

“As someone with a foot in both the academy and the world of popular press and magazine publishing, he was able to draw on his communication skills and interview data to deliver an address that engaged an entire audience in serious contemplation about the future of the Supreme Court. We could not ask for more in a Tresolini Lecturer,” added Pinaire.

Rosen carefully examined the temperaments and philosophies of both Obama and Roberts in an attempt to understand the future of the Supreme Court. Although prevailing wisdom assumes Obama will remain devoted to civil liberties while Roberts will preside over a court against Obama’s policies, Rosen argues that the two actually have a strong interest in finding common ground.

Since taking office, Rosen says, Obama’s actions have not backed up the theory that he will be the civil libertarian most observers believed him to be. Although Obama announced in his campaign that he would appoint justices that would care about the powerless and not the powerful, he believes it’s not the court that should create social change.

This may play into Roberts’ goal to gain unanimity among the Supreme Court justices. He has relatively succeeded in doing so primarily because the unanimous cases were not the “sexy” or social cases most often associated with the court, but instead business cases.

Jeffrey Rosen

““Many of the cases the court decides involve questions of huge importance to the economy,” says Rosen, adding that business cases comprise about 45 percent of the Supreme Court docket this term. “These cases are not politically polarizing and tend to be decided in favor of the business interests.”

The current economic climate may greatly shape the court’s actions in the coming decade. Cases surrounding economic programs such as the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP, will likely provide tough judicial challenges.

“There are many differences between the two,” said Rosen of Obama and Roberts. But, “both gentlemen have an urge to bring disparate and clashing voices together and both believe in a limited role for federal courts. There will be more that unites Roberts and Obama than divides them.”

Perhaps one of the most telling moments will come at the appointment of future justices. Rosen divulged his short list for likely appointments, including Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, former Harvard Law School dean and current U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, and Cass Sunstein, former professor of law at Harvard Law School and current head of the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

“It was very informative. He is very well-versed in constitutional law and has some interesting ideas,” said Senior Judge Alan M. Black of Lehigh County, who had read some of Rosen’s previous work in The New Republic. “It’s always interesting to follow what’s going on in the Supreme Court, because decisions may seep down and affect what will happen in my court.”

The Rocco J. Tresolini Lectureship in Law was established in 1978, in memory of one of Lehigh’s most distinguished teachers and scholars, Rocco Tresolini (1920-1967). As professor and chair of the department of government, Tresolini contributed to the understanding of law and its relation to government. The endowed lectureship was made possible by the generosity of Lehigh’s Class of 1961, and other alumni and friends of the university.

--Tricia Long

Photos by Theo Anderson

Posted on Friday, April 03, 2009

share this story: