On Nov. 2 the American public will cast their votes for who will be president. Similarly it will also elect or re-elect senators and could tip the balance of which party holds the majority in Congress. An outcome out of these elections that many do not consider, though, is the future composition of the Supreme Court, a change that could bring even more long-term repercussions to civil rights than the direct election of the president or senators.
Supreme Court judges are nominated by the president and need confirmation by the Senate. Both executive and legislative branches therefore factor heavily in the selection of who will represent the judicial branch.
Once a judge is appointed to the bench he or she is there for life or until he or she decides to retire. Historically, judges have waited to retire until a majority in the senate and/or a president reaches a composition they favor to strategically ensure that the judge replacing them will support their point of view.
To understand just how such long-term appointments can change the structure of the Supreme Court, one can look at Chief Justice William Hubbs Rehnquist. Appointed to the court on Jan. 7, 1972 he was one of two judges to oppose Roe v. Wade, the case that established women’s rights to an abortion. He voted against school desegregation in the case of Brown v. Board of Education while favoring the death penalty and school prayer. It’s safe to call him conservative.
Since he is now approaching an age — 80 — where it is likely that he will retire, the next administration could pick his successor once he makes the decision to step down or is forced to make that decision because of health issues.
Another justice who is rumored to be eyeing retirement is the first — and so far only — woman to serve on the court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She is generally considered a moderate and has often cast deciding votes when the court was in a deadlock.
The Supreme Court often has the last word in federal law and civil rights. In cases like Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board of Education, its decision changed American society quite dramatically. A balance on the court is therefore important in order to not have a one-sided decision-making process.
Critics of the Bush administration, however, are saying that if Bush is re-elected (coincidentally he was appointed by the Supreme Court) he could also have a chance to reshape the Court.
Former campaign manager of the 2000 Gore campaign Donna Brazile said Monday night, “The problem with the Bush administration’s approach to the courts is the same problem as in their approach to government. They think it’s an exclusive and wholly owned subsidiary of the right wing and they rarely take a look at competent people from the other side of the aisle.”
Other presidents have tried to preserve the carefully established balance of the Court. But if Bush’s record and the increasingly right-leaning stance of the Republican Party are considered (Republican candidate for the Senate Tom Coburn recently indicated he favors the death penalty for women who have an abortion and the doctors who perform it), it is likely the Court would be reshaped to favor right-wing ideals.
Voters may want to consider this when they cast their vote for both president and Senate over the next two weeks.