Monday, January 09, 2017
Less Hollow Hope on the defensive side
Judicial appointments always seem to be less of a high agenda item for Democrats than for Republicans. At the voting level, polls show that voters who identified the composition of SCOTUS and the federal courts as the most or a very important issue broke strongly for Trump.*
[*] On an AALS panel about the presidential transition, Steven Calabresi argued that this means Trump's promises about judicial appointments, especially to SCOTUS, are the equivalent of Bush I's "read my lips," to which Republican voters will hold him. If Calabresi is right, this will affect the result of any systematic Democratic efforts to oppose any Trump nominee.
At the presidential level, Reagan appointed 50 more judges in his eight years than Obama did in his, and Obama leaves office with about twice as many judicial vacancies (more than 100) than Bush II left in 2009. (So however Obama transformed the federal judiciary likely will be undone by Trump, who has a significant number of lower-court vacancies to fill immediately, along with the Scalia seat). Although Obama nominated and praised Merrick Garland and did speak about the waiting nomination, he did not do it so loudly or so often to keep the issue from largely disappearing from the news. I do not know if more political heat would have changed anything--if Republican voters genuinely care more about the courts than Democratic voters, there was no constituency to force Republican hands on this.*
[*] Which may offer another reason that Democratic attempts to hold the Scalia seat open indefinitely will fail--the Republican voters outraged at the obstruction will be louder and more numerous than were the Democratic voters outraged over Garland.
Some of Obama's less-than-complete success is due to Republican obstruction and that the Republican-controlled Senate has confirmed virtually no nominees during the past two years. But Obama had six years of a Democratic Senate, the last two of those without a filibuster on lower-court nominees (although still blue slips), which might have allowed him to push through a bigger flood of lower-court judges into those vacancies, had he been so inclined. (And this is without getting into judicial ideology, where Obama's (and Bill Clinton's) nominees never appear to be as liberal as Bush's (and likely Trump's) have been conservative).
But Obama never seemed so inclined, at least not outwardly or forcefully. One possible explanation is that Obama adheres to the arguments of University of Chicago political scientist Gerald Rosenberg in The Hollow Hope that the courts are not effective agents of social and political change and that progressive activists must focus more on the political branches. (The greatest social-change success came during the 1960s, the one time in history when the courts and Congress were on the same page). Obama is, at heart, a believer in political activism on the ground, back to his days as a community organizer, rather than in the courts. And that seems to have affected his approach to filling judgeships.
But there is a defensive component to our hopes for the courts. Courts are essential to protect what activists achieve in the democratic process. Or, stated, differently, they offer the other side a great way to stop or reverse social change that comes from the political branches. Packing the courts with Democratic nominees is essential to secure those political-branch successes, even if the courts should not be the primary target for establishing rights in the first place.
And it is not only about protecting statutes and regulations from declarations of unconstitutionality.*
[*] See Voting Rights Act or the Medicaid expansion or DAPA. Or, historically, everything between 1933 and 1937. Or imagine if a Republican-controlled Court had come out the other way on the constitutionality of public-accommodations provisions.
It is, perhaps more importantly, about protecting against judicial interpretation and construction that sharply narrow the scope of those statutes and regs, thereby undermining their impact and social-change purposes.*
[*] See, e.g., restrictive interpretations of Title VII and other employment discrimination laws.
And we can add to that sub-constitutional procedural decisions closing the courthouse doors to those who would seek to avail themselves of statutory and constitutional rights.
[*] See Twiqbal or recent restrictions on class actions.
That is what Republicans achieve by dominating the courts and by making that dominance a central goal of every presidential administration. And what Democrats lose by not. The power to reverse that trend is what was lost by the failed Garland nomination, the failed Clinton candidacy,the failure of Obama to push more on judges, especially in his first six years, and the substantial number of vacancies he leaves to be filled by President Trump. (I recognize this reflects the "Disease of More": Obama achieved a lot with respect to the federal judiciary--it just never feels like enough).
And to put on a candidly partisan hat for a moment (remember, the banner says "almost always"): This, more than the probable loss of Roe as a constitutional doctrine or the loss of an opportunity to finally define and implement a vigorous liberal constitutionalism, is what saddened me most about the results of this election.