The Importance of the Supreme Court: Part 1
The Importance of the Supreme Court: Part 2
You might have heard that over the Valentine’s weekend that Justice Scalia of the Supreme Court died unexpectedly. What you might not understand is what a gigantic deal it is.
Antonin Scalia has been a huge figure in the court for the past thirty years. Not just physically but, as the physical embodiment of conservative values and what they stand for in America. So the idea that his replacement could be chosen by a new school, liberal President like Barack Obama is quickly becoming a the topic in American politics.
Based on age alone, we knew the next President would likely have to fill two seats in the Supreme Court but Antonin Scalia’s wasn’t one of them. So while Obama has already nominated and replaced 2 justices during his Presidency, he basically replaced liberal judges with liberal judges so it didn’t change the court ideologically.
This vacancy left by Scalia is the first time in fifty years a liberal president has had the opportunity swing the pendulum of the court from right to left and people are understandably freaking out.
The thing is…People don’t pay much attention to the Supreme Court but they really should. A President might serve four to eight years in office, but a Supreme Court justice is there for life. It’s really the Supreme Court’s opinions, and biases, and interpretations of the law that we have to live with for a generation. This development with Scalia is a wake up call for how incredibly important the job of Supreme Court Justice really is and how very important it is to choose the right President to nominate them.
A Liberal or a conservative high court can affect the country more than any one politician ever could. As Republican Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz recently said, “We are only one liberal vote away from gun control laws.” Which you may or may not see as a bad thing.
Remember, the Supreme Court ended segregation (BROWN vs. THE BOARD OF EDUCATION), it made abortion legal (ROWE vs. WADE), it forced a President to resign (US vs. NIXON), and it DECIDED the 2000 Presidential election (BUSH vs. GORE).Even if you ignore politics completely, the decisions the Supreme Court makes will continue to affect your life on a daily basis.
Think of your congressmen and senator as air traffic controllers, the President and Cabinet as the plane and the Supreme Court as the pilots. You could have the sweetest jet and the sharpest guys in the tower but, if the person with your life actually in their hands goes the wrong way, or is negligent. You’re going to crash.
Think about where you stand on climate change, gun control, abortion, immigration, money in politics or civil rights because it’s the Supreme Court that will decide those issue for you. The President represents America but the court tells us what that America will look like.
This upcoming election isn’t about punishing the big banks or destroying ISIS. This election is about who we are as a country. What our values are and what we want our future to look like.
It’s about as important as it gets.
Lets go back to the basics:
The Federal Government is broken into three distinct parts: THE EXECUTIVE: Which is the President and his Cabinet that is currently controlled by the Democratic Party; THE LEGISLATIVE: Which is also called Congress, the law making bodies of the House and Senate which is currently controlled by the Republican Party; and the JUDICIAL: Which is the SUPREME COURT. 9 Justices chosen to interpret the constitution on behalf of the American people, the highest court in the land and the last word of the law.
The founding fathers set up this three tiered system so that no one branch could ever have too much power over the other. A check and balance system with the Supreme Court as the final word. If, say, the President makes a law using executive order (bypassing congress and their opinions) like Obama just did with Carbon Emission reductions, Congress can use the Supreme Court to sue the office for overstepping. The supreme court then becomes the ultimate decider on whether the law in place is constitutional or not. Obama’s carbon bill is currently on hold.
It should be noted that the Executive branch doesn’t need to use the court in this way as the President can stop congressional laws (without a supermajority) by simply using the power of veto as he has the 64 times Congress has voted to repeal The Affordable Care Act.
The Supreme Court is also the last stop on the appeals train. If you take someone to court and feel the outcome is unfair you can appeal the ruling. If you feel the next trial didn’t go your way and you can prove it, you can appeal again. In fact, you can continue to appeal you case all the way to the Supreme Court. But, once their decision is made, the ruling is final.
The court’s job is gigantic one and why having 9 people is essential to their ability to do their jobs. The tie breaker vote is key. Yes the court could theoretically break 6-3 or 2-7. It has been known to be unanimous but, over the last four decades as the country’s changed and become more divided socially, economically and spiritually, those supreme court decisions have been splitting more and more along ideological lines. With the five Republican nominated judges having a majority rule over the four Democratically nominated ones.
Now, with Scalia gone, the court is split 4-4 and without that tie breaking vote a lot of important pending cases won’t have verdicts and their results will be pushed back down to the standing verdict in the 5th District appeals court which, is a travesty of justice in a country like America.
So, we should just get a new 9th justice, right? Seems pretty obvious? Well, unfortunately it’s not obvious. It’s political.
Section 2 article 2 of the Constitution says it is the President’s job to appoint a suitable replacement to the Supreme Court as soon as possible. It also says it’s the Senate’s job to assist and approve said appointment. The problem is our current Republican controlled senate has already said they won’t do it. Which is unprecedented in American history and why this whole thing is shaping up to be such a big deal.
Hours after Justice Scalia’s body was discovered, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell released a statement saying: “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next supreme court justice. Therefore this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”
While the fear of replacing someone like Scalia who was arguably the most conservative judge on the court with someone more progressive is understandably unpalatable to the conservative Congress it is, unfortunately, their job to replace him and the argument it is “standard practice to not to confirm a supreme court justice in an election year” simply doesn’t hold water since President Regan’s appointed Justice Kennedy, who still sits on the court, was confirmed in the election year of 1988. And the argument of the “American voter can having their say” is nullified by the fact that the American voter DID have their say when they reelected Obama 3 years ago.
Unless we want to start arguing that the 4th year of a President’s term is nullified, a dangerous precedent to set, we can’t just stop Obama from doing his job simply because we don’t like what he stands for and the senate can’t stop doing it’s job just because it not getting it’s way.
It’s like playing that horrible game of chutes and ladders. You get all the way to the top and you hit a slide that takes you all the way to the bottom. It’s a bad roll and it sucks but you don’t flip the board.
Refusing a candidate based on merit is something the American people should get behind but, refusing any and all candidates no matter their history, record or abilities before they’re even named is a misuse of power no matter what party you stand behind.
Scalia himself, an Originalist or Textualist reader of the Constitution would be against this play. I’m sure he’d hate to see himself replaced with a gay rights advocate, climate change believing, women’s rights activist but, he’d argue Congress should find a reason “not to approve that person” because the Constitution clear that they have to approve someone.
Senator McConnell, and his fellow Republican senators, promise to sit on their hands until a new President- hopefully a Republican one - takes office next January is setting off a political firestorm. Isn’t giving give the middle finger so publicly to the system (and your paid position in that system) really just giving the middle finger to America. What if the roles were reversed?
If you choose hold up an appointment because a nominee is truly unsuitable their would be grumbling but not outrage. To refuse to even see a candidate? That’s a terrible miscarriage of justice.
Obama WILL appoint someone. It’s his job. The question is will he appoint someone knowing that person will never be approved? A sacrificial lamb there to run out the clock…OR will he appoint a number of distasteful LIBERAL choices only to present a MODERATE as a compromise the republicans would look obstructionist to deny…OR, will he appoint someone who is so universally liked, someone already accepted by both sides (like the 2 new Federal judges the senate voted unanimously for) that it would be impossible to reject without losing face?
Only time will tell but it sure will be an interesting battle to watch.
A battle that will no doubt affect us for generations to come.
This is why we have to pay attention. This decision, and the next President’s appointments, will change the face of the court. And, with our country so divided, the election won’t be about a person. It’ll be about the future values of America.
If it matters to you which way those values lean, then you should be registering to vote…like now.