A Consoling Thought for Those Who Lose in the Supreme Court

On this date in 1892, Robert H. Jackson, later a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, was born.  Justice Jackson, an appointee of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was also well-known for his service as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trial that involved many of the top officials of Nazi Germany.

In a concurring opinion in Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443 (1953) (a palindrome citation, for those who are fascinated by such things), Justice Jackson wrote a sentence that has endured.  Referring to the fact that a habeas corpus petitions brought by a convicted state court criminal defendants to a federal court can result in reversal of the state court conviction, Justice Jackson observed:  

Whenever decisions of one court are reviewed by another, a percentage of them are reversed.  That reflects a difference in outlook normally found between personnel comprising different courts.  However, reversal by a higher court is not proof that justice is thereby better done. There is no doubt that, if there were a super-Supreme Court, a substantial proportion of our reversals of state courts would also be reversed.  We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.  [Emphasis added].

The final sentence of this passage has been taken as a statement of judicial modesty: the recognition that even the Supreme Court of the United States can be wrong.  Those who come out on the losing side in the United States Supreme Court (or, in most instances, the Supreme Court of New Jersey) may be able to take some consolation from the idea that their positions may still have been correct.  They lost not because the highest court is always right, but because it is always the last stop on the judicial train.