Ilya Shapiro is the director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute and author of Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of the Highest Court, as well as the Shapiro’s Gavel Substack newsletter. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly.
Given your recent experience at Georgetown, what hopes do you harbor for the future of academic freedom at law schools and higher education more broadly?
Though I’m long on America—like Brett Kavanaugh, I live on the sunrise side of the mountain—I’m pessimistic about academia. We may have passed the point of no return in terms of the illiberal takeover. And I do mean illiberal. What we’re seeing isn’t the decades-old complaint about liberal professors—I don’t think the ideological ratio has changed much since I was in college 25 years ago or law school 20 years ago—but weak administrators who placate the radical Left. Wherever deans and presidents stand up for free speech and the core truth-seeking mission of any academic institution, the mob disperses, but most university officials are spineless cowards, as Georgetown Law dean Bill Treanor proved to be.
In Supreme Disorder, you look at the history of high court confirmation battles, the growing dysfunction surrounding that process, and what can be done about it. What effect do you think the Supreme Court’s recently concluded term will have on this situation?
If anything, it’ll continue the downward spiral, but not because there’s anything wrong with the Supreme Court or Senate. Instead, what we’ve seen is the culmination of several trends, whereby all-powerful justices display contrasting methods of jurisprudence that now largely track identification with parties that are more ideologically sorted than ever. So judicial vacancies can’t help but be politically fraught. The only way confirmations will be detoxified—and the only way we reverse the trend in which people see “Trump judges” or “Obama judges”—is for the Court to restore our constitutional order by returning improperly amassed federal power, while forcing Congress to legislate rather than letting bureaucratic rules govern us.
You recently ran for the Falls Church, Virginia, public school board. Do you have any advice for others considering such a run themselves, or for those who want to support anti-establishment candidates?
I like to think that I won, even if I wasn’t elected—because the cohort we wound up electing was still better than the incumbents they replaced, and I don’t have to serve on the school board! My main advice is to keep things local. My opponents—the local newspaper and establishment network of “concerned citizens”—nationalized the race by calling me a Trumpist subversive who wanted to privatize schools and undermine democracy (yes, it was an underpants-gnomes theory). But most places, even most blue places, aren’t like this classic limousine liberal redoubt wedged between Fairfax and Arlington. I joked with Governor Glenn Youngkin, who owes his office to a parental revolt against the educational status quo, that I still did better around here than he did.
What are you reading right now?
After the personal tumult of the last half-year, not to mention the end of the Supreme Court term, I’m keeping things light this summer. I just finished The Church of Baseball, about the making of Bull Durham, a magisterial effort by the movie’s director, Ron Shelton. I wrote about this book in my Substack newsletter, Shapiro’s Gavel, and I guarantee that you’ll learn something and enjoy yourself even if you’re not a baseball fan—because it’s not really a baseball film. And I’m now into the second book of a spy-thriller trilogy by the Canadian writer Collin Glavac, who happens to be the son of my middle school French teacher. Ghosts of Guatemala was a page-turner, and Operation Nicaragua is equally good. Can’t wait for Cuban Conspiracy!
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