The passing of a SCOTUS justice is a Big Deal™. It means a shake-up in the underlying philosophy of the Court. A hotly contested appointment struggle. An opportunity for a President to make lasting change long after his term is done.
But for most people, it’s just another dead government official they’re only vaguely aware of. They’re not really sure what he did, or why his death is significant. “Huh, another old white guy died. Oh well. I hope I can pay my rent this month.”
Not so for the chattering class that some lawyers (and all legal media and professors) belong to. Having an opinion on Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence and his potential successor is an opportunity for them to shine. Make their opinion known. Display expertise. Be the star of the cocktail party.
This is true on blogs and social media as well. Everyone wants a piece of that pie. It’s the hot topic this week, so you better put something out there on Justice Scalia’s death. Generate some good traffic!
What They Don’t Know
Most lawyers never argue before SCOTUS. They never get anywhere close. They are not in Biglaw or boutique SCOTUS advocacy groups. Seventy-five percent of lawyers are in private practice. And of that 75%, 69% are in practices of 10 lawyers or less.
For them, SCOTUS and its justices are some far off place that they read about in the paper just like everyone else. These lawyers are aware of the Court and its impact on their lives, but the Court isn’t relevant to their practice day-to-day. Maybe it’s something to chat a bit about over lunch this week, but that’s about it.
The details of Justice Scalia’s death are irrelevant. There is no need to keep up with the nomination debate. These lawyers’ opinions or thoughts on the process are important to no one. Their clients are concerned about immediate problems regarding their life or business, not what’s happening in Washington, D.C.
Don’t forget, last month a survey of college graduates gave us this gem:
Only 61% of college graduates could correctly pick a sitting SCOTUS Justice from a list of options. Ten percent picked Judith Sheindlin a/k/a “Judge Judy.” These were college graduates, people who are nominally well educated. You think the roughly 70% of Americans without college degrees would fare better? I doubt it.
In the grand scheme of things, Justice Scalia’s passing is significant and worthy of discussion. His impact on the Court will be felt for years. His opinions likely affected your clients.
But the micro level, the level at which most lawyers function day-to-day, his passing is insignificant. Just another news blurb that makes up the white noise background of media consumption in the 21st century. Maybe a bit more significant because it relates to the legal industry, but ultimately not that important.