Law Symposium Considers Political Questions and the Courts

U.S. Supreme Court frieze
The 2020 Connecticut Law Review symposium, “Empires or Umpires? Political Questions, Separation of Powers and Judicial Legitimacy,” explored the judicial approach to political questions in the United States.

The refusal of U.S. courts to decide cases that involve politics is unique and potentially harmful, Columbia Law Professor Jamal Greene told an audience of 200 at the Connecticut Law Review’s annual symposium on October 9, 2020.

Using Canada, Israel and India for comparison, Greene noted that the highest courts in those countries don’t avoid political questions. The United States, he said, is alone in the world in how its courts often refuse to address these issues, claiming they are best left to other branches of government.

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Bush v. Gore, a holding that effectively decided the 2000 presidential election, stepped into the political arena. But negative reaction to that decision caused the court to fortify its avoidance of future political questions, Greene said, and that has left serious political problems such as partisan gerrymandering for other branches.

The symposium is an annual event at the UConn School of Law, presented by the student-run Connecticut Law Review. The 2020 symposium, “Empires or Umpires? Political Questions, Separation of Powers and Judicial Legitimacy,” was the first the law review has hosted entirely online. In addition to Greene’s keynote address, attendees heard from three panels of experts, each of which looked at the topic from a different angle.

The first panel examined the history of the political question doctrine, and panelists discussed the role of public opinion in shaping that history. The second panel’s topic was the Supreme Court case Rucho v. Common Cause, a 2019 decision where the court held that partisan gerrymandering is a political question, and therefore outside the court’s jurisdiction. The final panel addressed different theories of judicial decision-making.

Among the speakers on the third panel was Richard Robinson, chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. “I love doing these things where I learn a lot more than I teach,” he said, laughing.

Dean Eboni S. Nelson began the event by thanking those in attendance and noting the timeliness of the event. It was held just days before the beginning of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, and less than a month before a nationwide election. Nelson said she couldn’t think of a more pressing topic than America’s courts.

“We heard from the nation’s leading scholars on a topic that could not be more timely, said Professor Douglas Spencer, the symposium’s faculty advisor. “The student editors, Jillian Chambers and Qing Wai Wong, deserve all of the credit; they facilitated multiple rehearsals with the panelists and managed different waiting rooms where the panelists assembled prior to presenting.”

Chambers ‘21 and Wong ‘21 said they were pleased with how seamlessly the event ran and appreciated how much knowledge and passion speakers brought.

“The panel discussions went better than we could have imagined,” Wong said. “Having panelists and moderators who were willing to engage with the online format made the whole event possible and coordination much easier.”