05/20/2014 11:58 am ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

Driving the Point Home: Judges Matter

As the Supreme Court winds up its term and issues what will likely be several controversial decisions, we are again reminded of the importance of our third branch of government. Too many Americans don't fully grasp how their daily lives can be impacted by the Supreme Court, to say nothing of the impact of lower federal courts.

This year the court has already ruled in momentous cases involving civil rights and civil liberties -- cases that will reverberate for years to come. In one, a majority of justices dispensed with Congress' finding that unlimited political contributions can foster corruption. Instead, they ruled that there can be no ceiling on the aggregate amount any individual can spend on elections and election-related issues, or in other words, the total amount an individual can spend overall in an election cycle. In another, the court allowed voters in the state of Michigan to outlaw consideration of race as part of the admissions process used by state universities.

In the next few weeks, key cases involving women's rights -- and their daily lives -- will be front and center. In two such cases, the court will decide whether an employer's religious beliefs can trump the rights of their employees. In Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius and Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the court will decide whether owners of for-profit businesses, citing personal religious objections, can deny their employees' health insurance that covers contraceptives -- insurance that the employees are otherwise entitled to by federal law.

In another case with a significant impact on women's ability to exercise their constitutional rights, McCullen v. Coakley, the court will decide whether a Massachusetts law creating a buffer zone around the entrance of reproductive health care facilities in order to protect patients and staff from harassment and intimidation by protestors is constitutional.

Courts matter, and so do judges. Conservative political groups understand this. Tilting the court to the right has been the agenda of a vocal minority for decades. Rolling back the advances in civil and individual rights that characterized the 1950s, 60s, and 70s has been the goal of a very well organized movement. Those who believe in the landmark advances of that era, and our own have to prioritize the issue of the federal judiciary and judges, too, ensuring that ideologues are not confirmed to lifetime seats on the federal bench.

Can lower court and appeals court judges make a difference too? Absolutely. For proof, just consider the progress of marriage equality, as federal courts one after the other rule against same-sex marriage bans. Consider, too, the impact of lower federal court decisions upholding draconian state abortion restrictions -- even those that result in shutting down clinics. It is imperative that those of us who believe in the civil rights victories of the past and present and are concerned about the questions still hanging in the balance pay attention to who is nominated to the federal judiciary. Just as they say that war is too important to be left to the generals, so too the issue of who decides on our rights is too important to be left to the Senate without our input. Those who would block progress and roll back gains are hard at work. Now is the time to make our voices heard. It may not be too late, but it is later than we think!