I'm just gonna hijack your conversation here because my perspective on law school and lawyering seems like it could be relevant.
I have an undergraduate degree (B.S.) in Biochemistry/Molecular Biology. I applied to law school after becoming disillusioned by watching my biochemistry mentor do his incredibly slow, boring, tedious work. I took a business law class that I really liked, said, what the hell, took the LSAT, earned my J.D. and now three years later I just took the Florida Bar. (I get my results back sometime late September).
Law school is nothing like I expected, and it's nothing like most people expect. In my experience, the first year of law school can basically be described as academic hazing. All your classes are as early as possible and you have a mandatory, huge courseload. Professors call on you and try to put you on the spot in front of your peers. They assign you hundreds of pages of reading monotonous, tedious, boring opinions. The second and third year is different, because you get to choose more specific courses, but for the most part you're still doing the same kind of work.
My point is, what you learn in law school is how to read legal arguments written by judges over the last two hundred years
and absorb it. Most of the time you're not actually learning the "law," (the "precedents" you spoke of in the GP) because the "law" for each subject can probably be summarized in a short 30-200 page outline for each (which is, indeed, what you acquire when you study for the Bar exam). Law school itself teaches you how to read, write, think, and argue almost all issues in both ways. Law school also gives you a perspective on how to write and form legal arguments based on defining a specific issue
and then breaking up that issue into it's component elements
, and then thoroughly analyzing each component element with relevant authority, precedent, policy, and other forms of persuasive arguing. I know it sounds fairly simple as described here, but trust me when I say it really can take months if not years to acquire a knack for it.
Obviously I'm biased, having just taken a bar exam and hoping that I can soon call myself a lawyer, but I do not think it's a good idea to have non-lawyers on the Supreme Court. The reason I say this is because to understand how to form a legal opinion, you need an understanding of how to form legal arguments in the first place. You also need a deep, solid understanding of how the government works on all levels, which mandates that you must understand the monstrous, chaotic beast that is Constitutional Law in itself. That alone could consume your entire life. What was suggested earlier:
But having 5-7 lawyers/judges to provide the structure and training to guide debate, and 2-4 non-lawyers to provide different viewpoints is fairly safe.
just doesn't work in practice, because when they would speak about "their opinion" on the matter, it wouldn't be based in any type of legal foundation. It would simply be a layperson's opinion on the matter.
One of the most interesting things for me nowadays is explaining certain legal concepts to my non-lawyer peers. Most of the time, they wind up convoluting things that don't bear on a particular issue and they form arguments that aren't "legally" relevant just because they feel like it's the right thing to do. There's a place for that, but it's not something you want to invite behind a judge's bench.
I will conceded one definite point: the fact that law school teaches you to argue issues both ways means that lawyers (and judges) can easily construe a statute or one of it's provisions, phrases, clauses, or whatever in anyway that would best benefit their own self beliefs. And THAT is a problem. But by the same token, many times you need that kind of balance in order to provide an objective viewpoint.
IMO, what would be best for the Supreme Court are intelligent lawyers with a well-rounded education, who are politically and religiously neutral and are immune from political influence. But you will probably never find that, and if you do, they would definitely not be appointed by a politically-motivated president/congress. Yeah, it'd be nice if all the Justices were also accomplished computer scientists, chemists, artists, engineers, farmers, and doctors, but then they "wouldn't be qualified" in the eyes of the Senate.
Furthermore, just because I've learned a legal precedent in the past doesn't mean I'm obliged to agree with it and always argue for it. Judges (and lawyers) don't always follow legal precedent. That's why stuff gets overturned. Judges follow laws and they also follow policy decisions because it's in their interest to defer to congress, not to override congress, unless they've overstepped their bounds. Judges take into account a lot of intangible things that probably just seems like lawyer-speak nonsense to a laymen but is part of being fair and balanced. That's part of being a good judge. I personally think (and since /. comments aren't deleted, I know this may one day come back to bite me in the ass) that the Commerce Clause has been too broadly construed since Wickard v. Filburn, and congress should be brought back in check. But I'm an originalist, and in my experience reading and learning Con Law and reading the Federalist Papers and whatnot I just can't imagine Thomas Jefferson or James Madison EVER thinking that the Federal Government would have the power to regulate something like cannabis.
BUT, if forced to, I could argue that it could.