Justice Antonin Scalia's unexpected death has thrown the importance of the Supreme Court into focus. Amid all the partisan bickering and obstructionist, political posturing we should take a moment to talk about why the composition of the United States' highest-ranking court matters. Simply put, the people who sit in its nine chairs can have lasting power far beyond the man (or perhaps, someday, woman) who appoints them.
First, while presidents can hold office for a maximum for eight years, Supreme Court justices (along with all lower federal judges) hold lifetime appointments. Justices can -- and often do -- stay in office for decades.
Second, while presidents set policy and sign bills into law, it is the justices who rule on the constitutionality of those laws and therefore determine if they will ever take effect. President Barack Obama knows this system of checks and balances all too well. His legacy hinges in large part on the decisions of the justices. The Supreme Court's decision to uphold the majority of his landmark health-care bill, for example, arguably helped to assure his re-election. Now, the propriety of his executive action concerning immigration, among other decisions, sits with the court.
Presidents are hardly inconsequential, but many of the biggest changes our society has undergone in the last few decades are a result of Supreme Court decisions. Our most important and momentous issues -- those that have the biggest impact on this nation's citizens -- have been ruled on by the court. Most recently, and quite famously, the Supreme Court declared a fundamental right to marry. Now, regardless of a person's sexual orientation, she can marry the person of her choosing in any one of the 50 states.
Decades ago, in another decision that altered the fabric of our society, the court found that women have a privacy right to have an abortion. Around the same time, the court helped to define our system of representation and created the rule of one person, one vote. And one cannot mention landmark Supreme Court cases without discussing Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court declared unconstitutional the doctrine of separate but equal.
The issues facing the current court are no less weighty; in fact, many of the cases now before the Supreme Court are repeats of the issues decided in those landmark cases. The court will once again tackle issues related to race; specifically it will look at the constitutionality of affirmative action programs in colleges and universities. And the court will again turn to the issue of abortion and determine how much of a burden we can place on a woman's right to obtain one. In addition, the court will determine how we define the rule of one person, one vote.
Because members of the Supreme Court enjoy lifetime appointments, court watchers must undertake the somewhat macabre process of looking at the justices' ages to determine when they might leave a vacancy. On next year's inauguration day three of the eight remaining justices will be 78 or older. Because of their ages, Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are likely to vacate their seats during the next presidential term. Justices Breyer and Ginsburg are considered members of the court's liberal wing, while Justice Kennedy, the so-called swing vote, is a conservative justice who sometimes votes across the aisle. It is not an overstatement to say that the next president will likely determine the court's balance of power.
And if Obama is unable to get the Senate to confirm his nominee to replace Justice Scalia then the next president is likely to appoint four of the nine justices. A president has not been faced with an opportunity to re-shape the court by appointing four justices since Richard Nixon was in office.
Many people tell me they are "single-issue voters." They talk about abortion or immigration or education. As the next presidential election nears I would urge voters everywhere, if they're only going to focus on one issue, to make it the Supreme Court. Its members will ultimately decide all of those single issues.
This post originally appeared in Pacific Standard Magazine.