The Brawling on the Bench by Justices Who Must Decide the Law of the Land

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — If recent history is any guide, by June the Supreme Court justices will be sour, sullen and snarling at each other in their opinions.

Last summer, Justice Antonin Scalia called Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s position in an abortion case "irrational," "perverse," "indecisive" and so fatuous it "cannot be taken seriously." And they were voting on the same side.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun was no less circumspect in dissenting from the court’s decision to cut back abortion rights. He called Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist’s plurality opinion "unadulterated nonsense" reeking with "cowardice and illegitimacy."

Still, life at the Supreme Court is rather chummy these days. Compared, that is, with the way it used to be.

Consider James C. McReynolds, a choleric, anti-Semitic right-winger. He gave Louis D. Brandeis the silent treatment from 1916 until 1939 and left the room when Brandeis spoke at conference.

Brandeis took this serenely. "McReynolds is one of the most interesting men on the present court," he told Felix Frankfurter. "I watch his face closely and at times, with his good features, he has a look of manly beauty, of intellectual beauty, and at other times he looks like a moron . . . . I have seen him struggle painfully to think and to express himself and he just can’t do it coherently."

By 1946, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s court had broken out into such bitter personal feuding that then-President Harry S. Truman lamented, "The Supreme Court has really made a mess of itself."

It’s less a mess now. But the philosophical divisions are as passionate as ever. And if the antagonisms have run deeper in the past, they have seldom been so public. Opinions of the last two years contain some of the most vituperative attacks on other justices in court history.