A statuesque and blond Southern California native, 39-year-old Elizabeth Wydra is as comfortable braving huge waves on a surfboard as she is litigating high-stakes cases in the federal courts of appeal. She became president of Constitutional Accountability Center in January 2016. We talked to her about her passionate interest in the Constitution, the state of the Supreme Court and what she does in her spare time.
MLB: What does Constitutional Accountability Center do; what’s your role as president?
EW: Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC) is a nonprofit, bipartisan organization dedicated to the progressive promise of the Constitution. In recent decades the Constitution has been more ardently embraced by the Right than the Left—CAC was founded to say, essentially, the Constitution is for all of us, and supports the equal rights and dignity for which left-leaning advocates have long fought. My role is to be the public voice of the organization. Working with our think tank lawyers, I file briefs in the Supreme Court, Courts of Appeals and shape the public debate about the Constitution and the Supreme Court.
MLB: After the death of Justice Scalia and President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, the conversation is increasingly about the Supreme Court. What are your thoughts about what should happen now?
EW: The Senate should do its job—advise and consent—which the Constitution requires it does. The President exercised his right and now it’s the Senate’s turn to give Merrick Garland consideration and give him an up or down vote. Refusing to meet with someone so qualified is problematic for the Supreme Court. If Republican Senators stick with their message, it will mean that the Court will not be able to function properly for two terms. Even if the next president nominates someone right away, you’re looking deep into 2017. That would be an absolutely unprecedented vacancy.
MLB: And the consequences?
EW: The first 4-4 split ruling this year is in a case about banking loan discrimination. In the case argued March 23 [on providing contraception coverage to women employed by religiously affiliated organizations], it’s possible the court would split 4-4. [On Tuesday, March 30, the Court ordered new briefs, presumably to resolve the case without a 4-4 split.] The problem [with a 4-4 split] becomes that the court affirms the lower court ruling. Then the Supreme Court can’t set national precedent. If there are courts of appeals that have gone different ways, we’ll have different rules in different parts of the country. A 4-to-4 tie would mean the mandate would be carried out only in those regions of the country where courts have ruled for the government, and not in the other.
MLB: Would you characterize yourself as a typical D.C. workaholic?
EW: I work a lot and very hard but I’m such a true beliver in what I do that it seems a very natural part of my life to be constantly thinking about the Supreme Court and Constitution. I saw a miniseries about George Washington when I was a little girl. It influenced my career path.
MLB: You’re from Southern California; what made you switch coasts? Do you miss the West Coast?
EW: After college, I came back to the East Coast for law school. You can’t say no to Yale. I read Akhil Amar’s brilliant constitutional law scholarship in college, and because it really resonated with me, I wanted to study under him at Yale (which I noted in my Yale application!). It was such a thrill to not only have him as my mentor in law school, but now I get to put his scholarship into action every day (he’s a CAC board member) and get paid for it! It’s basically a professional dream come true. What I love about D.C. is that people are so engaged. The public conversation is focused on policy and the world in a way that is missing in other cities. I do miss California weather, but I like to think I bring a little bit of California with me.
MLB: What do you do to relax?
EW: I love to travel. The only way I have time off is to go to some faraway place on a surfboard, skis or a sailboat. I’m very good at vacationing, not good at weekends. I go to California and have traveled to Nicaragua to surf. Recently I was in the south of France for two weeks. The first week I surfed outside of Biarritz, which is the surfing capital of Europe. The Pro Surf Tour was there at the same time. I spent the second week in Bordeaux eating good food and drinking wine.
MLB: Interesting combination. And in Bordeaux, I know you traveled with two women 30 years your senior. How did it all go?
EW: I was viscerally scared looking at those big waves, but you go out and you don’t die. I had just lost my boss and mentor at CAC and had to think about what was next in my life; I was also coming to the end of a personal situation. It was a rare time when I had the opportunity to escape my usual hectic life and travel in a way that made me face my fears and be supported by women who have had amazing life experiences.
MLB: After CAC, is there a job you dream about getting? Judge, maybe Supreme Court judge?
EW: Hard to say. At CAC, I was the president’s first hire in 2008. When the job announcement came out, I got a slew of e-mails from friends saying it was the perfect job for me. It was the job I went to law school to do. I find the idea of America and our Constitution to be incredibly inspiring. We the people demand equality, justice and liberty. It’s a promissory note in our national charter.
MLB: You’ve been on TV as a legal expert for NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox News, and Fox Business Channel and nationally syndicated radio programs. Do you get a hair salon allowance (laugh)?
EW: No salon allowance. I like arguing in the court of public opinion; it’s a great opportunity to have a conversation with millions of people. It’s important to be able to speak about what’s going on in the Supreme Court and with the Constitution. My job is to continue that and talk about it in a way all Americans can understand. Whether I’m on Fox News or in a debate with a conservative organization, it’s important to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. I’m friends with very conservative and liberal people. We’re both passionate but we can talk. Instead of coming in and saying you’re a bad person, what I do is say here are my arguments based in the Constitution’s text and history to try to convince people.
MLB: What are you reading now?
EW: It’s a mix of generally non-fiction. I often read about reconstruction history. I’m reading Capitol Men by Philip Dray about Reconstruction and the lives of the first black Congressmen. I’m also on the last novel of the Elena Ferrante trilogy, The Story of the Lost Child.
MLB: Do you have a favorite place in D.C. to take out-of-towners?
EW: It’s hard to beat the monuments. For family and friends from California, going around downtown D.C. is so unlike anything in California. Anything that wasn’t built in the ’80s is impressive.
MLB: Is there something I should be asking you about that I’ve missed?
EW: One of the things that my organization has at its top is a group of powerful women. It’s not necessarily something you find in Supreme Court practice. I like what Ruth Bader Ginsburg answered when asked what number do you think would be enough women on the Supreme Court. She said nine.
— Interview by Janet Kelly
Janet Kelly is the editor of MyLittleBird.
Read more here about Janet.