Why Courts Matter: Discussing the Future of the Judiciary Post-Election

November 9, 2012

By Amanda Simon

ACS president, Caroline Fredrickson, joined experts from the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC) on Nov. 8 for a discussion on the future of the courts post-election. The lively discussion, viewable here, covered a range of topics from reproductive rights to voting rights to judicial nominations.

After opening remarks from CAP’s John Podesta, the panelists tackled some of the issues that emerged from this week’s election. Fredrickson immediately pointed out that courts had played a large role in the election, including several court decisions on early voting rules and voter ID laws. And CAC’s Doug Kendall noted the strength of the Voting Rights Act played a large part in getting favorable rulings on voting issues leading up to the election.

Given that a few congressional candidates had made outrageous and offensive remarks about rape and pregnancy, the panelists discussed the influence of women in this week’s election. As Fredrickson put it, “Women voters aren’t stupid…For the moment at least, we can be a little more comfortable that we won’t see Roe v. Wade overturned in the immediate future.” But nothing is a sure thing until and unless progressives start recognizing the importance of the courts as a central issue, as conservatives have for decades. While President Obama may serve for just four more years, his judicial appointees will leave their imprints on the legal system for decades to come.

That’s just one reason why discussion of judicial nominations, which we hope will loom large in the upcoming “lame duck” congressional session that begins next week, was also a major part of the event. There are currently 19 judicial nominees teed up for full Senate confirmation, having been overwhelmingly approved by the Judiciary Committee with support from Democrats and Republicans alike. The nominees, who represent just a small percentage of judicial vacancies across the country, have been waiting months (or longer) for this final step in the process. Republican obstructionists in the Senate have held these nominations hostage to an unprecedented degree, despite bipartisan support for many of the nominees and the growing vacancy crisis that threatens the efficacy of the entire judicial system.

Relatedly, panelists discussed concerns with the current state of the filibuster, a tactic that has stalled several judicial nominations in the Senate. Is reform a realistic possibility in the future? CAP’s Ian Millhiser said he was optimistic but that “the devil is in the details.” Though filibusters are supposed to be used in “extraordinary circumstances,” Fredrickson noted that, “as we know, ‘extraordinary circumstances’ under the Obama administration means nominated by President Obama.” (You can learn more about judicial vacancies and how you can help at www.judicialnominations.org.) Whether or not Congress will take up filibuster reform is unclear at the moment, however. The need is certainly there, and it’s an issue that ACS will continue to weigh in on during the months ahead.

Thursday’s panel was one of the first public discussions of the direction of our nation’s courts, but it certainly will not be the last. The courts’ role in the everyday lives of Americans is a key concern for ACS, and we recently published a paper, titled “Why Courts Matter: Justice on the Line,” that outlines the major cases and issues that the Supreme Court may very well confront in the near future.