BACKTALK | fall 2004
Save the Courts
Many believe that had the U.S. Supreme Court not intervened in the 2000 presidential election, former Vice President Al Gore would be president right now. But, by intervening in Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court anointed then-Texas Governor Bush with the presidency by halting the recount of all votes in the state of Florida.
Over the last four years, decisions rendered by the Supreme Court have systematically eroded our civil rights, a woman’s right to choose, workers’ rights, environmental health and safety, and consumer protections.
And yet I don’t think most voters are really aware of the fragile composition of the court. How many of you are aware of the current state of affairs of some of its members?
There’s no question why rumor continues to persist that a major shift could occur on the Supreme Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 71) is said to be waging a five-year battle against colon cancer. Justice John Paul Stevens (age 84) is getting up there. Justices William Rehnquist (age 80) and Sandra Day O’Connor (age 74) have been rumored to be eyeing retirement.
If these justices were to retire, the balance of conservatives and liberals, with a few swing votes, could be tipped one way or the other.
Justice O’Connor’s retirement under a Bush presidency alone could lead to a dramatic erosion of reproductive rights, affirmative action and gay rights. It was her vote on each of these issues that has been the deciding factor in all of the successful gains made through the Supreme Court.
Let’s be direct here: All of our lives, our rights and freedoms, could change in the blink of an eye.
And make no qualms about it, President Bush has no intention of being a “compassionate conservative” when it comes to his choices for the federal judiciary.
In a statement made prior to the convention in Boston, Phil Singer, a spokesperson for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, summed it up best when he said, “While John Kerry and John Edwards are laying out their vision for making America stronger at home and respected abroad, President Bush is playing politics and stumping for judicial nominees who would roll back the clock on the rights and freedoms of the American people.”
In fact, Bush used the issue of the courts in the final weeks of the 2002 midterm elections when he campaigned vigorously to defeat Democrats who had opposed some of his most controversial nominees, including Charles Pickering Sr., Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owens.
Progressives should expect the Bush-Cheney campaign or its allies in crucial battleground states to give the green light to local activists to campaign nonstop on “saving the courts” from liberal activist judges.
Back in 2000, I heard from some of the Gore-Lieberman organizers on the ground reports of a number of push-polling calls (another form of dirty campaign tricks) to swing voters. These calls, while perhaps unauthorized by the Bush campaign, warned voters that the next president could appoint three or more judges to the Supreme Court.
The caller would add, “These justices would determine whether gays could marry, women could obtain abortion on demand, the American flag could be burned without penalty, or mandatory affirmative action or quotas would be enforced.”
The more wedge or divisive the issues, the more venom would be added to the calls in a desperate attempt to motivate conservative voters to take action now.
It’s time liberals and progressives build a national campaign to “save the courts” from these right-wing extremists and ideologues. Remember the filibuster in the U.S. Senate led by the Republican Party to try to persuade the country to select five judges with abhorrent civil rights and women’s-rights records?
The message the radical right has sent is clear — they will use their power to galvanize their base through scare tactics and blunt political force.
As we enter the final stretch of this electoral season, everyone, especially women voters, must be prepared to save the courts as a last resort to protecting our hard-won freedom and liberty. Our very lives deserve our greatest efforts ever.
Donna Brazile is chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004). Visit her website.
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