The SCOTUS Tipping Point: High Stakes at the High Court
In this contentious campaign season, there appears to be only one thing about which the two major candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, can agree: the importance of the Supreme Court. Both have repeatedly raised the issue in their respective campaigns, and both have said the issue should be a high priority for voters and for the next president.
In this respect, Clinton and Trump are right. The Supreme Court is at a tipping point, with the next president likely to fill several seats on the Supreme Court. The current vacancy due to the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia and the continued obstruction of Chief Judge Merrick Garland, whom the president nominated for the vacancy back in March, is just the beginning. The Court is also aging; during the next administration, three of the eight current justices will be in their 80s, making it likely that one or more of them will retire.
This is a rare moment. No president has filled four Supreme Court seats in a first term since Richard Nixon after his election in 1968. Through appointments made over the course of just three years, Nixon left a legacy that extended decades beyond his term in office. Remember, a president serves four years; Supreme Court justices can serve four decades.
So it’s clear that the Court is at stake this election season, but why does it matter? How will the next round of Supreme Court appointees shape American life over the next several decades?
The answer is that there is virtually no part of your life that will go unaffected. To highlight just a few questions of immense national importance, the next justices of the Supreme Court could decide:
· Whether all Americans will have an equal right to participate in democracy and cast a vote, or whether our political process will be controlled by big-money interests while communities of color are denied access to the polls.
· Whether we can respond to escalating gun violence with common-sense reforms like background checks and waiting periods, or whether we must permit unfettered access to guns, no matter how many lives are lost.
· Whether we have safe water to drink and clean air to breathe, or whether big business will be allowed to degrade our environment and endanger public health for the sake of profits.
· Whether Americans have access to affordable healthcare, including access to contraception and abortion.
· Whether working people will have a voice on the job so they can negotiate for better wages and working conditions, or will have to go it alone against their employers.
If that doesn’t convince you why it’s important to select the right Supreme Court justices, consider the various — and conflicting — ways the Court has decided questions of profound importance over our history.
The Supreme Court gave us Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down school segregation and promised a future of inclusion. It gave us Gideon v. Wainwright, which provides the accused with an attorney when they are unable to afford one. It gave us Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed the right to marry to all people regardless of sexual orientation.
But in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court also struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that for decades protected voting rights for historically disenfranchised communities. The Court gave us Korematsu v. United States, which upheld the government’s internment of tens of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans during World War II. And it gave us Bush v. Gore, which effectively negated votes when it stopped the recount in the narrowly-decided 2000 presidential election.
In Stenberg v. Carhart, decided in 2000, the Supreme Court struck down a ban on the use of so-called “partial birth” abortion as violating a woman’s constitutional right to access an abortion. But seven years later, after Justice Alito replaced Justice O’Connor, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on “partial birth” abortion in Gonzales v. Carhart.
The Supreme Court gave us all of these decisions — all that changed was the justices on the bench, and the presidents who appointed them.
It matters who serves on the Supreme Court, and this year, in a rare moment when the enormous stakes are remarkably clear, we all get a say in who our future justices should be.