Pomona College politics professor Amanda Hollis-Brusky virtually testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Sept. 22 about the role of judicial independence in safeguarding the rule of law.
The purpose of the hearing, titled “Maintaining Judicial Independence and the Rule of Law: Examining the Causes and Consequences of Court Capture,” was for the House Judiciary Committee to examine contemporary threats to an independent judiciary and the issue of court capture, where courts become heavily influenced by special interests or political groups.
Judicial independence, the concept that the judicial branch of the government is unswayed by other branches of government or partisan politics, is at the crux of Hollis-Brusky’s research.
“Given my expertise in judicial politics in general and The Federalist Society in particular (my first book is on the organization), I was called to provide testimony as an expert witness,” Hollis-Brusky said in an email to TSL.
The recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shed new light over the hearing as Senate Republicans push to fill the vacancy. Senate Democrats plan to fight the confirmation, arguing that the vacancy should not be filled until after the presidential inauguration in January.
However, Hollis-Brusky believes her testimony may not change the course of action.
“I don’t think anything I said or anything my fellow witnesses said is going to change Mitch McConnell’s mind,” she said. “And maybe it won’t change any of the Republican senators’ minds either. What I tried to do was outline the stakes of ramming through a judicial nomination so close to the election, the adverse consequences this will likely have on the public’s perception of the courts as independent and neutral arbiters of the law.”
The hearing also addressed the influence of the Federalist Society on judicial nominations, an organization that advocates for an originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
“The Democrats, in particular, are concerned about the monopoly the Federalist Society — an outside, privately funded legal organization — has on Republican judicial nominations,” Hollis-Brusky said in her email.
The hearing was particularly unusual, as normally witnesses testify in hearings from Capitol Hill — instead, Hollis-Brusky testified from her office in Claremont.
“The upside of a virtual hearing is that I didn’t have to travel, pay my own way, find someplace to stay, take time away from my kids and figure out childcare for several days in order to testify. So those stressors were eliminated. On the other hand, technology is always a wild card,” Hollis-Brusky said via email.
Webex, similar to Zoom, allows witnesses to dial into the hearing from across the United States. Hollis-Brusky emphasized there was a concern during the hearing that the technology would go haywire.
“Luckily, everything seemed to work well. And being in my own office was something of a home-field advantage. No flashing lights or cameras or Congressmen glaring at me from close proximity,” Hollis-Brusky said. “I felt pretty safe and grounded sitting at my desk surrounded by sticky notes and pictures of my kids and, of course, my bobblehead collection.”
The movement toward virtual hearings could increase access for citizens wanting to partake in politics and experts of various backgrounds.
“I think the move to virtual hearings is going to allow more people to participate in our democracy — not just those who are already inside the beltway or those that have time, money and resources to pay their own way to D.C.,” Hollis-Brusky said.
She added that her role as a witness was simply to provide subject area expertise for members of Congress and their staff.
“What they do with that education, how they choose to act on the information (or not act on it) is ultimately out of my control,” Hollis-Brusky said.
On the topic of restoring judicial independence that was at the heart of the hearing, she suggested that the restoration of judicial independence might begin where it started.
“If we care about judicial independence and the rule of law — and I have suggested in this testimony that there are reasons we should care deeply about both — we need to first change our politics,” Hollis-Brusky said in her closing remarks. “And that begins here, in Congress.”