Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bench Vacancies

With Justice John Paul Stevens announcing his retirement yesterday, President Obama is reportedly considering several candidates to take his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some of the leading candidates, according to reports, include U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, U.S. State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh, and Harvard Law School Professor (and now Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) Cass Sunstein.

What do all of the above have in common?

They've never been a judge!

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Nets are looking for a coach, having fired six-year veteran Lawrence Frank earlier this season and used an interim coach, Kiki Vandeweghe, since before Christmas. Leading candidates, according to rumor, include (i) Mark Jackson, former Knicks/Pacers point guard and now ESPN/ABC announcer, who has never coached anything, and (ii) Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University, who has never coached in the NBA. Meanwhile, other pundits have suggested in the past week that 33-year-old coach Brad Stevens of Butler University, having husbanded his men to a couple centimeters from the national championship, deserves a shot at the pros.

Other teams looking for a new coach next season may include Golden State, New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, Indiana, and the L.A. Clippers. That Chicago will need a new steward is not surprising: when they hired Vinny Del Negro in June 2008, he had no experience as a basketball coach, for any team, at any level of the game, anywhere!

Both NBA coaching positions and Supreme Court justiceships are, respectively, the highest achievement in the profession. Why would you give such highly coveted positions to individuals who have hardly proven that they can do it? In the judging realm, someone with big aspirations can gain experience at several levels of state or federal judicial systems. As a coach, the best way to audition for an NBA head-coach job is to start as an assistant: Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike D'Antoni, Rick Carlisle, Mike Woodson, Lawrence Frank, Avery Johnson, Phil Jackson, Byron Scott, Erik Spoelstra, Rick Adelman, Nate McMillan, Scott Brooks, Jerry Sloan, Scott Skiles, Mike Brown, and many others rose to prominence this way. Coaching a college team, not quite as effective preparation (most college coaches who have tried NBA jobs have failed), is nonetheless better than no experience whatsoever.

Preparing to judge is certainly easier than preparing to coach, though. The raw materials of judging are statutory text, constitutional text, caselaw precedent, and briefs from litigants, all of which are publicly available. It is easy to "simulate" judging a particular case. Motivating 12 world-class athletes to play hard defense and pass the ball effectively, though, is a draining task that can only be conjured, not very realistically, in one's interior world. While there may be political reasons why President Obama might pick a non-judge for the Supreme Court, I cannot imagine why Mark Jackson or any college coach would be hired to lead a potential NBA champion (which is, we hope, how every team views its long-term trajectory).

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