OUR FEDERAL COURTS HAVE BEEN PACKED WITH RIGHT-WING JUDGES

Republicans are rushing confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee just before the election, which is emblematic of their packing of the federal courts at all levels with right-wing judges. [1] (See my previous post for more details.) Rushing through the confirmation of Judge Barrett threatens to complete the delegitimization of the Supreme Court – and to some extent the whole federal judiciary – by making it clear that the federal court system is not an  impartial arbiter of the law, but a fully politicized institution.

Over 200 federal judges have been confirmed since Trump took office (including over 100 that were carried over from the Obama administration due to Republican blocking of confirmations) and basically all of them are proponents of the extreme right-wing legal philosophy of the Federalist Society. [2] Right-wing Republicans have used a Federalist Society endorsement as a litmus test for nominees while ignoring input from the American Bar Association, which always used to provide an independent analysis of the qualifications of nominees. [3]

This packing of the federal courts with right-wing jurists, which is the result of McConnell and the Republicans breaking the norms of our democratic processes, will benefit Republicans and their wealthy, corporatist backers for a generation or longer because their right-wing judicial philosophy favors corporations and the wealthy over workers, consumers, and the middle and lower classes.

These right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed judges typically claim to support “originalism,” a legal philosophy that claims the original intent and meaning of the Constitution, written in 1787, should determine judicial decisions. “Originalists” claim that government cannot constitutionally do anything that is not explicitly provided for in the Constitution. This legal philosophy has been very effective in driving right-wing legal politics, although the appropriateness of applying the meaning of the words of the Constitution to today’s technology strains credulity; its writers couldn’t have dreamed of our current medical and health care capabilities, our transportation and communications systems, our financial instruments and guns, or our huge, multi-national corporations.

An alternative legal interpretation of the Constitution, as a living document that requires interpretation in the context of current times, was prevalent from the late 1930s into the 1980s. In the late 1930s, during the recovery from the Depression, judges interpreted the law and the Constitution to allow American democracy to live up to its principles. Right-wing politicians and legal theorists labeled this “judicial activism” or “legislating from the bench.”

The “originalist” legal philosophy was developed by right-wing scholars in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction to laws and judicial support for economic and civil rights. The New Deal worked to level the economic playing field, to regulate business, to provide voice and a balance of power for workers through unions, and to provide a social safety net. After World War II, these efforts continued with more of a focus on leveling the social playing field and treating all people as equals before law, by ending segregation and discrimination, protecting the rights of prisoners and those accused of breaking the law, and providing access to contraception and abortion. The judicial-established principle of one person, one vote and the Voting Rights Act worked to level the political playing field. Judicial decisions supporting economic and civil rights, many of them made by the Supreme Court under Republican Chief Justices Earl Warren and Warren Burger between 1953 and 1986, were, at the time, largely viewed as non-partisan. They reflected a belief that the Bill of Rights applies to state laws and governments, as well as at the federal level. [4] This dramatically expanded civil rights and overturned the “states’ rights” doctrine that had allowed states to, among other things, engage in discrimination, particularly against Black Americans.

“Originalist” judges have ignored and will continue to ignore precedents and are reversing 80 years of legislation and legal decisions on individual and civil rights, as the hearings on the latest Supreme Court nominees and recent Supreme Court decisions have made clear. While the attention of these hearings has been focused on social and religious issues, from abortion to affirmative action and discrimination to LGBTQ rights, the often-overlooked issues about our economy and capitalism, such as the balance of power between employers and workers, the ability to earn a living wage, and the availability of an economic safety net, are critically important as well.

Under “originalist” legal theory, the federal government has little power and much of what it currently does should be left to state governments. Under “originalism,” the federal government does not have the power to regulate corporations or the wealthy, including restricting their use of their money in our elections, as the spending of money is viewed as exercising free speech. Decisions by the federal judiciary at all levels make it clear that “originalist” theory favors private interests over public interests, corporations and employers over consumers and workers, law enforcement over defendants’ rights, and gun rights over voting rights. Such decisions deprive employees and other vulnerable populations of their civil rights. [5] [6]

Moreover, the “originalist” judges assert that the rights of the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech, are rights that belong to corporations as well as to natural human beings. I find it hard to believe that this was the intent of the writers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They clearly were focused on the rights of individual human beings. Furthermore, corporations, in anything approaching their current form, were unknown in those times.

Americans for Prosperity and other pro-business groups, many of them backed by billionaire, fossil-fuel businessman Charles Koch (and his deceased brother), have spent tens of millions of dollars on campaigns to pressure Senators to back controversial, right-wing judicial nominations, often using “dark money” (whose donors are hidden from the public).

The weak federal government response to the coronavirus pandemic is emblematic of “originalist” thinking. Some in the Trump administration simply didn’t believe it was the role of the federal government or within the legitimate powers of the federal government to respond, and, therefore, the response should be left to the states and the private sector.

President Trump and the Republicans in the Senate have packed the federal court system from top to bottom with hundreds of right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed, “originalist” judges who are on the fringe of what was previously considered appropriate for a federal judge. If our Founding Fathers had intended an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, I have to believe they would have realized frequent amendments would be required and they would have made it much easier to amend it. I believe that “originalism” is a rationalization for public relations purposes developed by wealthy corporations and individuals as a way to “justify” laws and court decisions that work to their benefit. This is just like their claim of non-existent voter fraud as the public relations rationale for voter suppression tactics.

Our federal court system is currently unbalanced and biased in favor of corporations and the wealthy. Right-wing judges will skew court decisions and harm the well-being of everyday Americans for the next 20 to 30 years unless Democrats are elected and actively work to rebalance the federal courts toward mainstream legal philosophy and historical precedent. This will not be easy given how skewed the system currently is.

Dramatic steps will need to be taken, including expanding the number of judges in the federal court system, possibly including the number of justices on the Supreme Court, given that removing judges is basically impossible. This is the only way to return to laws and government programs that protect and support a fair and just society with civil, political, and economic rights for all, women able to make decisions about their reproductive health, workers able to support their families and have safe working conditions, consumers able to use products and services safely, and a safety net that protects people when they hit hard times.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 10/11/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-11-2020)

[2]      The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, most frequently called the Federalist Society, is an organization of conservatives and libertarians that advocates for a textualist and originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_Society)

[3]      Heer, J., 10/14/20, “Barrett’s evasions show why expanding the Court is necessary,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/barrett-confirmation-court-packing/)

[4]      Richardson, H. C., 10/23/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-23-2020)

[5]      Richardson, H. C., 10/14/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-14-2020)

[6]      Dayen, D., 10/13/20, “Judge Barrett’s record: Siding with businesses over workers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/justice/judge-barretts-record-siding-with-businesses-over-workers/)

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