Yesterday, in a speech in Texas on the importance of voting rights, Hillary Clinton made one of the most important remarks of her campaign so far: "We need a Supreme Court who cares more about the right to vote of a person than the right to buy an election of a corporation." It wasn’t the first time she’d made similar statements, and to let us know she meant it, her official twitter account posted the line a few minutes later.
She’s not the only Democratic candidate to talk about what she’s looking for in a Supreme Court Justice. Bernie Sanders said last month that he’d appoint judges who would overturn the Court’s decision in Citizens United. Martin O’Malley made a similar statement just this week.
In a universe that made more sense, it wouldn’t be news that Presidential candidates are talking about the kind of jurist they’d like to see on our nation’s highest court. It’s oft repeated (and true) that aside from going to war, selecting a Supreme Court Justice is the most important single choice any President makes in office.
Yet Democrats haven’t traditionally spent much time talking about what they’d like that choice to look like.
Certainly, we know what we don’t want in a Supreme Court Justice. We don’t want someone who will overturn Roe. Or someone who would give us a decision like Ledbetter. Or, generally, act like an unelected agent of the Republican Party. Near general election time, Democrats have used the Court as a reminder of the devastating impact that would come from allowing a Republican to place yet another conservative hardliner on the bench.
All of those fears are well founded. But progressives shouldn’t spend the campaign talking only about what we don’t want on the Court—now is the time to talk about what we do want.
For the last three decades, conservative have used presidential primaries to push Republican candidates to articulate a vision of the Supreme Court. Republican candidates have identified sitting Justices (mostly Scalia and Thomas) they’d use as models when choosing a nominee, decried the Court’s supposed liberal tilt, picked apart decisions they don’t like, and, above all, emphasized their commitment to placing “strict constructionists” on the bench. Republican primary voters and conservative leaders, focused on abortion, race, deregulation, law enforcement, and marriage have taken those statements into account when deciding which candidate to support for the nomination—and they’ve reaped substantial rewards for their efforts.
So it’s a welcome relief to see Democrats talking about the Court so much earlier, and better, than ever before. Thus far, that conversation has focused on the need to restore some balance to the Supreme Court and restore the American people’s ability to impose reasonable limits on money in politics, but that shouldn’t be the end. Hillary Clinton has emphasized the Court’s role protecting voting rights. Likewise, we progressives should ask, and hear, about the Court’s role as defender of civil liberties and equal justice. Candidates should share their vision of a court whose doors are open to workers and consumers vindicating their rights, and to environmental activists looking for government agencies to fulfill their commitments to ensure clean air and water.
Decades after our next President leaves office, his or her appointees to the Supreme Court (to say nothing of the lower federal courts) will be affecting our lives in ways we can’t possibly foresee. We should expect candidates to tell us what kind of values they’ll look for when they decide who those people will be—and we should applaud them when they do it well.
We’ve got months left in primary season, and plenty of time for a robust conversation about the Supreme Court. It should play out in debates and town halls and prepared speeches. And we’re already off to a good start.