With the price of food and gasoline running at punishing levels, it is no surprise that the economy has replaced the disastrous war in Iraq as the issue with which voters are most concerned. Taken together, the two are quite literally issues of life and death. But as understandably preoccupied as the nation is with the current sorry state of affairs at home and abroad, voters should not lose sight of the fact that while the next president confronts the crises of the moment with one hand, he or she will craft the future with the other.
Judicial appointments are among a president’s most effective tools for shaping the social, political, and economic future of this nation. The dozens of trial and appellate judges a president names will determine the quality of justice, referee appointed and elected officials, and regulate the intricacies of our vast corporate culture.
The most important appointments, of course, are those to the Supreme Court. It is a risky business predicting how many vacancies might occur on the Court over the next four years. But putting larger issues of fate aside, it is likely that the next president will make one or maybe two appointments, to fill the seats of Republican justice John Paul Stevens, who is 88 years old, and Democratic justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who is 75.
Putative Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s recent speech at Wake Forest University — in which he pledged to extend the legacy of President George W. Bush by continuing to appoint radical, right-wing judges — should come as no surprise to even casual political observers, particularly as he continues to pander to the hard-core conservatives of his party whose contributions and votes he must garner to have any chance of winning in November.
Despite McCain’s highly publicized maverick moments, he is at his core a ruby-red Republican. Like Bush, McCain values the economic supremacy of the few over the many, and is dedicated to the proposition that the power and prerogatives of the presidency are more important than the civil liberties of the citizenry. Any Democrat disenchanted with the hard-fought primary season would do well to remember this.
While we admire Senator Hillary Clinton, the Phoenix has a clearly stated preference for Senator Barack Obama. But it is painfully clear to this newspaper that either of the Democrats would name superior candidates to the judiciary. If McCain is elected, Bush’s royalist economic policies and reactionary political and social vision will become even more entrenched than they are today.
When it comes to evaluating former president Ronald Reagan’s judicial record, Reagan comes off as almost a moderate compared with Bush. Both presidents’ appointees are high-handed in their disdain for precedent and contemptuous of the Constitution as a safeguard for individual liberties threatened by overreaching government authority. But as bad as Reagan judges were — and are — on such issues as the death penalty and reproductive choice (to name just two), Bush’s are more ideologically fervent. McCain judges would re-enforce this tragic trend.
Liberals and progressives have reason to worry that McCain judges would complete the work so insidiously initiated by Reagan and Bush appointees and nullify Roe v. Wade, the 35-year-old Supreme Court decision that guarantees women the right to make choices about abortion.
But there are grave reasons to worry on other fronts, as well. With the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court clearly has tacked to the right.
To say that the court is polarized would be an understatement. But beyond the ideological cases that result in five-to-four decisions, pitting the conservatives against the more liberal and moderate justices, there is disturbing trend. When consumer interests or the interests of small business are pitted against corporate interests, big corporations increasingly often enjoy the advantage.
Even the Court’s most liberal member, Ginsberg, would hardly qualify as an economic populist by the standards of 20 years ago. And the usually admirable Justice Stephen Breyer is steeped in an efficient market approach to the law that, while intellectually coherent, often favors the power of markets and other impersonal forces over the needs of individuals and small groups.
That Ginsberg and Breyer were both appointed by President Bill Clinton demonstrates the degree to which individuals are powerless in the face of the huge multinational conglomerates that provide our gasoline, produce our food, and regulate the flow of news and opinion through monopoly media. So strong is the influence of big business that even Democrats can’t escape it.
As the nation awakens to the global threat of long-lasting and even irreversible environmental damage, the federal courts in general and the Supreme Court in particular will be key players in not only safeguarding constitutional rights and ensuring a modicum of economic justice and social opportunity. The courts will have to mediate between corporate interests and planetary survival, as well. Politics does not get more life and death than that.
While Obama and Clinton offer a welcome possibility of relief from the sort of third Bush term that McCain promises, that is not enough. Stopping the Reagan-Bush revolution is only a beginning. Whoever the Democratic nominee is, he or she must pledge to appoint judges who will rule to change course; in effect, to repeal the 16 years of collective misrule that Reagan and Bush visited on America.