06/04/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Greatest Mistake

President Barack Obama has a wonderful chance to begin to shape the next few decades in this country.

As Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him, he has an opportunity to shape the Supreme Court in a new, dramatic way. He may have as many as three appointments this term and more if there is a second term. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to whom he has been compared, recognizing the need for radical change on the Supreme Court, fought the Republicans tooth and nail on his selections in order to lift the country from economic depression and despair.

As I wrote in my most recent book, "The Next 25 Years: The New Supreme Court and What It Means For Americans," what is done now will affect the next few decades. The Republican stranglehold on the Court, which has existed for the last 25 years, will continue for another 25 years or more unless Obama appoints someone different than the names now being circulated.
The great decisions of the 20th Century were written by Thurgood Marshall, Frank Murphy, William Douglas, Hugo Black and Earl Warren, who were not previous members of the judiciary. They did not live in the isolation of the legal world, the kind of jurist that Obama is threatening to choose.

Justice William J. Brennan was an exception - he was very different from the names now being circulated. Although formerly a jurist, he was relatively unknown, from well outside the Beltway and way outside traditional circles.

It is not only the kind of liberalism they brought to the Court. The greatest influence of the great liberal Justices, particularly William J. Brennan, is not in the kinds of decisions they wrote but in the way they influenced the other members of the Court and, more importantly, the way they influenced the country.

Obama should not be looking only to moderate Democrats. The great liberal Justices gave us one-man/one-vote, proportional representation, school integration. The interplay between those Justices, their decisions, the movements that they helped support (such as civil rights and Vietnam protests) and the people that they helped motivate are all interrelated.
Obama's apparent failure to see the extraordinary effect of these Justices is astonishing and tragic for this country.