SCOTUS: When the Umpire Throws the Pitches
During his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts famously compared judges to umpires. The analogy was designed to convey an image of judicial modesty: judges, like umpires, play a “limited role,” impartially applying rules made by others rather than serving as partisans for one team or another. And he assured the Senate that he would “remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.”
Umpires leave the tactical choices to the teams. In the legal sphere, that kind of reserve led Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 78, to describe the judiciary as the “least dangerous” branch of the government. It has “no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever,” Hamilton wrote.
In recent terms, however, the Roberts Court has been taking a more assertive stance. Many observers have remarked upon the Court’s decisions striking down important government policies ranging from federal campaign finance laws to local school boards’ desegregation plans. Fewer have noticed a second form of assertiveness: the Court is not simply deciding which cases to hear, but is also directing the parties to address issues the justices want to take up.