Nan Aron is president of the Alliance for Justice. A version of this essay will appear in an upcoming issue of The Nation focusing on the Supreme Court that hits newsstands on Sept. 20, 2012.
Liberals who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s perceived the Supreme Court largely as a constructive force, devoted to protecting civil, environmental and consumer rights and liberties, and interpreting the Constitution as a living document relevant to a rapidly changing twentieth-century world. It was a Court worthy of respect, if not reverence.
That was then. The 1 Percent Court is now in session.
In 2012, progressives are on the defensive, and the battles over the meaning and purpose of the law and the Constitution are being fought largely on conservatives’ political and linguistic turf. The power of ordinary people to band together through labor unions and class-action lawsuits is being steadily weakened, even as corporate prerogatives are strengthened. As Craig Becker and Judith Scott show in this issue, access to the courts is being steadily limited by decisions that undermine class-action suits or force disputes into arbitration, a playing field that favors business malefactors. As Jamie Raskin writes, after the Citizens United decision, an unprecedented torrent of corporate money has flooded the political system, distorting democratic processes and institutions. And perhaps most ominously, if one carefully reads the tea leaves from the court’s recent decision on the Affordable Care Act, it appears that the commerce and spending clauses may soon be weakened as a constitutional framework for reining in corporate malfeasance.
Although Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion upholding the individual mandate as a “tax,” he went out of his way to explain why the mandate could not be upheld under the commerce clause. It is clear from the joint dissent that there are four other votes for this restrictive and retrogressive view of the commerce clause. The implications are potentially enormous for the federal government’s ability to address problems of national significance on every front — the environment, civil rights, labor rights and beyond.
Simultaneously, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in her opinion, in narrowing the law’s Medicaid provisions, the court, for “the first time ever,” has found a congressional exercise of the spending power to be unconstitutionally coercive. The court, including some of the so-called moderate justices, has clearly opened the door to future challenges to Congress’ ability to attach conditions to the grants it makes to the states. A host of social welfare programs and anti-discrimination statutes could now be at risk. So, while many progressives hailed the court’s decision to uphold the healthcare law, it is important to recognize that the opinion is based on decidedly conservative and pro-business principles with lasting implications.
Clearly, the story hasn’t ended. The ideological pendulum can swing back. But some things need to change first. The way forward requires a new way of thinking about the courts, new tactics for shaping the public debate and a lot more energy from the left. The timing couldn’t be more propitious: recent polling shows that the court has fallen in popular esteem in recent years, particularly as the implications of Citizens United are beginning to be understood across the country, with the current onslaught of political ads funded by secret right-wing donors coming into our homes via our radios and television sets. Because Americans see the court as basing its decisions on a political agenda that unfairly favors corporate interests, an opportunity to change public perceptions has opened up.
To do this, progressives need to place greater emphasis on taking back the judiciary. That means developing a narrative, a down-to-earth way to talk to people about the courts and their importance in our daily lives. For years, conservatives have aroused their base with rhetoric about “activist liberal judges” who are “legislating from the bench.” This well-financed and well-focused campaign led to a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives, which — as the articles in this issue demonstrate — is busily “legislating from the bench.” Progressives should support political action that will bring about the nomination of judges who understand the concerns of everyday Americans.
The way forward will require a variety of tactics, including:
A much more aggressive approach to judicial nominations.
Much more attention needs to be paid to building a cadre of young, progressive lawyers and law teachers who can serve as the reservoir of talent for future judicial appointments. We need to build a bench for the bench. Simultaneously, lawyers, law professors, students, activists and legal commentators need to become significantly more active in monitoring the judicial nominations process and putting pressure on home-state senators and the White House to move that process forward.
We should put forward progressive nominees who are equipped to go toe-to-toe with conservative jurists. As Sherrilyn Ifill writes in next week’s The Nation, we need judges from more diverse professional backgrounds on the federal bench. There has to be room for jurists who have had public interest, civil rights or criminal defense careers, or those from the academy who are prepared to fight a battle of ideas.
In an era in which confirmation fights have become a full-contact sport, it may seem easier to take the path of least resistance. But progressives should not unilaterally disarm, even if the inevitable nomination battles are hard fought. More victories would be won if progressive activists, voters, organizations and funders truly understood that these are battles that must be fought — and communicated this to their elected officials.
Smarter political tactics for influencing the Senate.
Democrats voted to confirm 97 percent of George W. Bush’s district court nominees during his first term, many of them ultraconservatives who thus never had to pay a political price. And during the current term, there was no outrage from constituents demanding to know why Democrats didn’t work harder to confirm Goodwin Liu, who had stellar academic and professional qualifications to serve on a federal appeals court. We need to do a better job of holding senators — even friendly ones — to account when they vote against our interests. We need to cultivate and support assertive champions of a progressive judiciary, in the tradition of the late Ted Kennedy. Finally, while progressives are inevitably stretched thin by an onslaught of issues and limited resources, activists and opinion leaders must make the courts a central issue. The message is simple: Everything we’ve fought for, everything we care about, everything we’ve won, will be taken away by hostile justices and judges if we don’t step up.
Conservatives know that Supreme Court decisions are great mobilizing and fundraising tools because their base cares deeply about them. As a result, conservative politicians feel emboldened to make courts and judges into political issues, and to talk about the law and courts as both symbols and instruments of power. Until this is equally true on the left, it will be a one-sided fight.