I first met Lyle Denniston in 1989, my first year covering the U.S. Supreme Court — his 31st.
On Monday night, I saw him again, at the University of Baltimore School of Law, holding court (pun intended) on the justices as only he can, mixing recollections of the late Justice William O. Douglas, who retired from the bench in 1975, and the newest justice, Elena Kagan, who was born two years after Lyle began his coverage.
Lyle now holds a professorship at the law school, and it was in that capacity that he sat down Monday with Professor Garrett Epps for an open-to-the-public discussion of whether and to what extent the Supreme Court is a political institution.
Yes, the court is political, Lyle says, but only to the extent it renders decisions with political consequences, such as in the areas of campaign finance, gerrymandering and that case which essentially decided a presidential election 16 years ago, Bush v. Gore. But Lyle says he disagrees with those who say the justices render their decisions based not on sound interpretation of the law but on which political party will benefit.
He blames the media, in part, for fueling the perception of a “political court,” citing news stories that make a point of mentioning the presidents who appointed the justices who wrote the majority and dissenting opinions, as if their decisions are a payment for their appointment.
To the contrary, the justices well know they are a separate and independent branch of the government by constitutional design, Lyle says. Article I of the Constitution is Congress, Article II is the president and Article III is the judiciary.
“It (the Supreme Court) is no shrinking violent,” Lyle told those gathered in the John and Francis Angelos Law Center Moot Courtroom. “They wake up in the morning being acutely aware of Article III.”
Lyle’s next public talk at the law school is scheduled for Oct. 20. The topic, “When the Politicians Pick the Voters,” will address the high court’s gerrymandering cases.