Why isn't there an economist on the Supreme Court?

With John Paul Stevens retiring, the Supreme Court needs an economist, because the court sets the important long-term economic rules.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Associate Justice John Paul Stevens (second from right in this 2006 file photo) has announced he's retiring. President Obama should appoint an economist to the Supreme Court to inform the future economic decisions of Justice Stevens's colleagues, including (from left to right) Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John Roberts.

What's the most important economic job in America: President of the United States, Head of the Ways and Means Committee, or Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board? Answer: None of the above. The most important job is Supreme Court Justice.

Far and away, the most important economic decisions are the longest-term ones, the ones with the deepest roots that establish the most fundamental institutions.

What exactly are property rights so constituted in our society? Who sets prices? What information can be private, or should be transparent? What obligations do employers have to their employees: free contract, minimum pay, basic safety, paternalism, or more? Is there a right to eat or a right to be fed?

Indeed, the almost entirely unreported but vital issue regarding the nominee to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stephens is whether he or she is economically literate, or rather, expert. It is not whether that person is left-liberal or left-center, pro-life or pro-choice, et cetera, yawn, et cetera. Face it, most Justices know almost nothing about economics beyond an Econ 101 class they had as a college freshman three, four, five decades ago.

And these are the people who decide what the commerce clause means ... the ones who made it illegal for a man to grow his own tomatoes without federal approval? Today we enjoy a Court that said it was peachy keen for the federal government to take ownership of General Motors on behalf of taxpayers who wouldn't touch GM stock of their own free will. To that, we can all say: "Thanks for less than nothing."

Isn't it about time we see an economist on the Supreme Court? There are nine jusices, and nowhere in the Constitution does it say that a law degree is a qualification. Yet, what we have now is a monopoly of lawyers on the Court. A monopoly.

All I'm suggesting is that a mere one of the nine have an economics degree. And to assuage the fears of the status quo, a nominee with dual degrees would be more than fine. My own colleague, Bob Litan, has a Ph.D. in economics from Yale AND a law degree from Yale.

So why not Bob? (That's our new rallying cry in Kansas City)

And maybe we're biased towards Litan, but how about Bob Cooter, a professor at Berkeley's law school and a pioneering thinker in the "Law and Economics" movement? Or maybe skeptics want to stick to a reliable and registered Democratic economist. Fine with me.

Why not Christina Romer or Austan Goolsbee, two of the President't top economic advisers? Instead, I'm afraid we'll get the same short list of sitting judges who are part of the merry-go-round of law school-clerkship-judgeship pontificating. It's time for a marginal revolution on the Court, Mr. President.

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