Exclusive Interview With "Joseph Russomanno, Ph.D"
As we navigate the ever-evolving impact of the U.S. Supreme Court on the landscape of daily American life, an urgent and enlightening voice emerges with Joseph Russomanno, Ph.D. and his thought-provoking book, The “Stench” of Politics: Polarization and Worldview on the Supreme Court. With a deep passion for the roots of the Court’s troubling transformation from an institution of justice into one that prioritizes political outcomes, Dr. Russomanno focuses on how the divisions in the country and the Court mutually affect one another. At the heart of this polarization is worldview, a lens that influences how each of us sees our surroundings and what we believe about them. Join him on a journey through the bumpy terrain of the country and its Court and gain fresh insights into the perilous path we’re on.
Tell us a bit about your background:
I’m a professor at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, now entering my 30th year there. Prior to that, I worked for a decade as a broadcast journalist. I teach, research, and write in the areas of mass communication law and First Amendment issues. (Those areas were the focus of the Ph.D. I earned between my two careers.) Given that some of my work stems from U.S. Supreme Court rulings, I’ve become a student of the Court, its dynamics and its personalities.
What was the impetus for writing The “Stench” of Politics?
The research/writing project that ultimately resulted in this book began with a broad scope, polarization and tribalism in America – topics that have been elements of some of my previous work. As my research unfolded, I realized 1) that the project would benefit from a more precise and narrow focus, and 2) how the data that I was uncovering could be applied to the Supreme Court. As I began to pursue that possibility, it became clear that, indeed, this was a valid and interesting option, and one that could yield some important information.
Was there a particular event or observation that sparked your interest in exploring this subject?
Aside from my longstanding interest in the Supreme Court, more than anything, I would say that the primary spark that advanced my thinking and analysis was a book that I read as part of my research. It’s called Prius or Pickup: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America's Great Divide. Its coauthors explore the concept of worldview, which might be described as a personal lens through which each of us sees the world. That lens shapes our beliefs and ideas. My “Ah ha!” moment was recognizing how this concept that helps to explain polarization in the country could be applied to the Supreme Court and its members. I began to test that hypothesis, and worldview ultimately became central to my book.
By the way, I was especially gratified when one of the coauthors of Prius or Pickup, Professor Jonathan Weiler, endorsed my book, praising my application of worldview to the Court. He says the book fills a void in the literature by providing a framework for understanding Supreme Court justices as political actors who reason from their core values to reach judicial outcomes. Those core values are dictated by their world views.
What were the biggest challenges of writing about such complex and significant subject like the US Supreme Court?
While the U.S. Supreme Court is shrouded in mystery to some extent, in other ways it’s an open book. For every case on which it rules, for example, multiple on-the-record opinions are issued. Thus, we know what the Court and individual justices think about specific issues and how they reason. The challenge lies in dissecting those opinions to find deeper levels of meaning and intent.
In addition to their opinions, the justices occasionally grant interviews or give speeches that further reveal who they are. And some have writings outside the scope of their Court opinions – books and articles, for example – that further peel back the layers.
Lastly, multiple scholars and journalists analyze and write about the Court. Their perspectives played important roles in my research and, ultimately, in the book.
Can you share your research process and how you gained insights into the worldviews of the justices?
I begin a research/writing project with an idea – a concept of what the project might become, complete with questions that need to be asked and answered. I then immerse myself in the topic by reading a lot of relevant material. I do so with eyes and mind wide open, both seeking specific sources and being sensitive to anything that comes across my radar that could illuminate and contribute to my topic. Ideas percolate and develop. Note taking is profuse. The process is organic; that is, it is fluid, continually developing. Rather than having fixed ideas through the process, I allow my ideas to evolve according to the information I uncover. It’s a learning process. Ultimately, I want to share what I learn with readers.
I often engage in what is called a “connect the dots” method of research and writing. That is, my research process is one of discovering and assembling a series of “dots” – data points. My job, then, is to connect those dots in unique, original ways that no one has done previously. This produces new information that is hopefully worth sharing.
In terms of gaining insights into the justices’ worldviews, they reveal these themselves. Most commonly, this occurs in their judicial opinions. In the book, I dissect some of those opinions to illustrate their authors’ worldviews and, in turn, to demonstrate how and why they rule as they do.
Were there any particular moments during your research or writing process that deeply impacted your understanding of the Court and its role in American society?
As noted, I’ve been a student of the Court for many years. So, while I was already aware of its role in American society, that role has developed in recent years especially, and in ways that I believe are impacting the nation negatively. Rather than being an institution that seeks and applies “Equal Justice Under Law” (as the engraving on the outside of its building proclaims), I show in the book how it has become a political institution with a political agenda. After all, the process by which the justices are selected is now replete with politics, orchestrated by politicians, with individuals nominated for the purpose of carrying out political agendas. A supermajority of six now precisely does that, and absent any notion of accountability. No wonder the Court has become a political institution.
The Court wasn’t always this way. But a movement began 50 years ago to change the law, and thus change the country. Rather than working through Congress where it’s difficult to acquire a majority of votes, leaders targeted the Supreme Court where only five votes are needed to win. In recent years, the movement culminated with the three politically manipulated nominations and confirmations during the Trump administration. It produced the supermajority who could be counted on to vote consistent with the movement’s goals. Not only was the Court transformed, but also laws and the country.
In terms of specific moments that led me to this conclusion, there were several. Among them, I had targeted four cases on which the Court would rule at the conclusion of its 2021-22 term. The cases dealt with abortion rights, gun rights, religious liberty and voting rights, respectively. I had hypothesized not only how the Court would rule on them, but the rationales that would be used. Each of those unfolded exactly as I had theorized. I describe those rulings – and the case backgrounds – in detail in the book, showing how some justices contort the law and their readings of the Constitution to fit their ideologies. These same practices have continued to the present.
Lastly, I was reminded during the research/writing process that the Supreme Court wields immense power, significantly affecting the lives of all Americans. This includes not only the rulings it makes, but also its often-overlooked authority to choose which cases it wants to hear, and when to hear them. Timing can be key. This was at play, for example, in the 2022 Dobbs abortion rights ruling that overturned nearly 50 years of precedent. The political motives at work were questioned by Justice Sonia Sotomayor during case arguments. She asked whether the Court as an institution could survive the “stench” of public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts. Her important question was the inspiration for the title I chose for the book.
The topic of the Supreme Court and its political transformation can be polarizing. How did you approach maintaining objectivity and ensuring that your analysis remained balanced throughout the book?
I deal in facts. As a trained researcher, my goal is invariably to seek and reveal truths. My hope is that readers will be open to the presentation of facts, grasp the information and understand the rationale of my conclusions even if there is disagreement about them. Oftentimes a critical perspective such as the one I employ is best because of its ability to reveal truths.
I strive for objectivity. A word about that concept, however: Objectivity should not be mistaken for neutrality. To remain neutral, I submit, often precludes objective conclusions. It can deprive the research process of its goal: finding answers. A commitment to neutrality forces us into presenting both sides of an issue equally, often including false equivalencies, then abandoning the analysis at that point. Thus, rather than balance where the truth can be lost, I strive for fairness. Information can and should be evaluated objectively, followed by objective conclusions. Those conclusions may lack neutrality and may be disagreeable to some, but they are intellectually honest as long as they fairly follow the evidence.
Were there any surprises or challenges you encountered during this investigation?
Writing is always a test, particularly with a work of length. Organization and structure are inevitably challenging. My priority is always clarity of message – making the work accessible. In other words, assembling the “dots” (within the connect-the-dots method) is one thing. How they should be presented is an issue of at least equal importance.
In terms of surprises, it was mildly surprising how precisely what I had hypothesized regarding the outcome of the cases I chose to highlight came to fruition. Across the board, each was a 6-to-3 ruling with the same justices in the (super)majority and the same trio in dissent. Even more, in analyzing their opinions, the significant and consistent degree to which each opinion embodied a specific worldview became clear. All that proved my points and allowed my conclusions to be well supported and credible.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
So many things on so many levels. If there is a single core of this book, it is worldview and how it affects all of us, including members of the Supreme Court. Worldview drives behavior and beliefs. In part, the book analyzes how each of us attains a particular worldview.
For those whose job is interpreting and applying the U.S Constitution, worldview drives them and the process in particular ways. The Court’s current supermajority of six sees the Constitution strictly in its original form, fixed in its meaning, unable and unwilling to see it through the lens of modern society, and with a desire to return the law and country to historical periods prior to the expansion of rights and the increase of opportunities for equal justice for all. In short, a revolution is underway in America, and it’s being led by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I view this book as an indictment of the Supreme Court. The Court is failing the country, I believe, and doing so largely unchecked. It’s a fascinating and important institution. I’ve attended sessions there to see and hear the arguments in some cases, and I did so with awe. I revere the Court. At least, I did at one time. But it’s difficult to see your Mount Olympus crumbling – to see this institution that has done so much good for the country now letting us down. Its public approval continues to plummet. Why this is happening is what this book examines – a divided Court in a divided nation. Original and useful keys are provided to unlock a new level of understanding of the Court. Lastly, the book does more than explain the Court’s problems; I also provide a series of recommendations designed to de-politicize the Court and return it to being a non-ideological institution where justice, not politics, is prioritized.