This political season, the focus has largely been on the daily political horse-race and the probable match-up between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, or the less likely challenger, Rick Santorum, in the fall. The media is focused on the day-to-day wins, campaign gaffes, and message wars between the potential candidates for the White House. But what everyone should really be focusing on this year isn’t who will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue but who will be appointed by the next president to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The next president will likely appoint at least one, but possibly two new justices to the Supreme Court. In his first term, President Obama selected two ideologically liberal women to the Court: Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. With the Court being split down ideological lines in almost every hot button case, the next key replacement to come will likely be when 79-year-old liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg retires from the bench.
There are nine justices on the Supreme Court. Nowadays the votes are split ideologically 5-4 with Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, swinging either to vote with the liberals or to vote with the conservatives. If Justice Ginsburg is replaced by a conservative jurist then the shift to the right will be solidified for another generation because there would be a solid majority of five conservatives with lifetime appointments on the Court.
The Court’s current term is rife with close and controversial cases. The media hype is all about Obamacare and the constitutionality of the individual mandate but the truth is that beyond that, the Supreme Court is set to shift the trajectory of this nation on important issues like affirmative action, voting rights, immigration, gay marriage, and, most recently, privacy rights. Many of these decisions will have the effect of turning back the clock to the past with fewer protections on civil liberties.
Just this week, the Court ruled that anyone arrested for an even a minor offense can be strip searched against their will while in lock up, even if they aren’t suspected of having any contraband. This is seen as an invasion of privacy by many civil libertarians and in reality may very well impact black men the most.
Anti-choice restrictions on abortion like personhood amendments and forced ultrasounds are popping up all over the country, many of which are clearly unconstitutional and, when challenged and brought before this Court, could spell the end of legal abortion rights we’ve had since Roe v. Wade.
Affirmative action is also on the Court’s docket this year. The fact of the matter is that affirmative action as we know it will likely end under this conservative Court. This term the Court has agreed to hear a challenge to the University of Texas’ affirmative action program.
The last time the Court decided an important affirmative action case, it was on the basis of the then-swing vote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote careful opinions and took a modest approach on controversial subjects. Her replacement on the Court, Justice Samuel Alito is a federalist society Reagan conservative who does not take a delicate approach to such matters. That means that there are five reliable conservatives to vote against affirmative action this term.
Right now the Court is conservative with Justice Kennedy sometimes swinging to the left to vote with the liberals. If a Republican wins the White House in 2012 the most significant impact he will have for an entire generation is the conservative justice he nominates for the highest court. If progressive voters don’t go to the polls to re-elect Obama they might find themselves losing certain rights and privileges that they may have taken for granted for their entire lives.
Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @zerlinamaxwell