Choose Your Own Supreme Court Justice
Out of our Top 20, whom do you like best?
Updated Wednesday, May 6, 2009, at 1:17 PM
Like Obama, Madigan has a background in community organizing. She also taught young women in South Africa during apartheid.
Harold Koh, 54, was the dean of Yale Law School until March, when he stepped down after being tapped to serve as Hillary Clinton's chief legal adviser at the State Department, a position for which he has yet to be confirmed. He is a star human rights litigator who forced the federal courts to grant rights to Haitian refugees held at Guantanamo Bay in the mid-1990s, though the Supreme Court eventually backed the government's policy of returning the refugees to Haiti without asylum hearings. From 1998 to 2001, Koh served as President Bill Clinton's assistant secretary of state for human rights.
Before joining the faculty at Yale, in the 1980s Koh practiced law at Covington & Burling and worked in the Reagan Justice Department, in the Office of Legal Counsel. He clerked on the Supreme Court for Justice Harry Blackmun. His family came to the United States in the 1950s, when Koh's father was South Korea's minister to the United States, and chose to stay here after South Korea's 1961 coup.
As a pre-eminent scholar of international law, Koh is a leading proponent of the notion that the United States can learn from the laws and judicial precedents of other countries. He has written and spoken about the role of "transnational jurisprudence"—a body of law that spans different countries and international courts—and has shown that since the founding, the decisions of foreign courts have influenced the development of American law. The far right attacked Koh's views on international law after Obama tapped him for the State Department legal post, even though they largely match the positions taken by a majority of the Supreme Court in cases like Roper v. Simmons, which abolished the death penalty for defendants who commit crimes as juveniles. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in that case, Koh attached the juvenile death penalty for clashing with American interests. We've weighed in about the Koh bashing on Slate here and here. If appointed, Koh would become the first Asian-American to sit on the Supreme Court. (Disclosure: Emily Bazelon is a fellow at Yale Law School.)
Leigh Ingalls Saufley, 54,is the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and the first woman and youngest member of the court ever to be appointed chief justice. A graduate of the University of Maine-Orono and the University of Maine School of Law, Saufley logged 10 years of service in the state's Attorney General Office. As chief justice, Saufley has spearheaded efforts to bring mental health courts to Maine, giving offenders the option of accepting mental health treatment in lieu of going to jail. She also supported a Maine law that would restrict how much information the public receives about a jury, if a judge deems the information should be kept secret.
Notable cases: In 2007, she voted to approve a state statute requiring drivers involved in fatal car crashes to submit to blood tests for alcohol and other drugs, finding the privacy interests of drivers did not outweigh the state's need to determine whether they were using alcohol or other drugs prior to fatal crashes. In 1999, she voted with a unanimous court to dismiss a sexual abuse suit against the Jehovah's Witnesses, because to hold the church responsible would require delving into matters of redemption and forgiveness, ''an inquiry that would require secular investigation of matters that are almost entirely ecclesiastical in nature.'' In 1999, she also authored an opinion finding voucher funding of religious schools unconstitutional. If the president really wants a Supreme Court justice who is female, as an outsider with a dollop of David Souter's New England pragmatism, Saufley is an interesting choice.
Myron Thompson, 62, is a district judge in Alabama. President Carter chose him in 1980 at the age of 33 in an effort to put a black judge on Alabama's federal trial court. Thompson's opinions on voting rights and on who has standing to bring lawsuits are regularly invoked by other courts. He's also the judge who was undaunted by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore when Moore insisted on displaying a massive granite Ten Commandments monument in the courthouse. Thompson ruled that effort a violation of the constitutionally required separation between church and state. The religious right called for Thompson's impeachment, but the 11th Circuit repeatedly upheld his rulings. Like the stone monument, Moore was finally removed from Alabama's court.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.