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“Conservatives Are Right To Be Frightened”: Don’t Believe The Hype: Here’s What A Liberal Supreme Court Would Actually Do

If you look at how the Democratic and Republican candidates for president have reacted to the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Antonin Scalia, you might notice a greater sense of urgency from the Republicans. The Democrats are certainly talking about it, and they’ve certainly expressed their contempt at the absurd arguments Republicans are making in support of their position that the president of the United States shouldn’t be allowed to appoint Supreme Court justices if a new president will take office in a year. But they aren’t spinning out nightmare scenarios about what will happen if they lose this conflict. The Republicans, on the other hand, seem much more worried.

And they’re right to be, because at the moment, they have more to lose. But what would actually happen if the balance on the Court shifts from 5-4 in favor of conservatives (what it was before Scalia’s death) to 5-4 in favor of liberals?

To hear Republicans tell it, the results would be positively apocalyptic. Here’s how Ted Cruz described it in a CNN town hall last night:

“We are one liberal justice away from the Supreme Court striking down every restriction on abortion that’s been put in place the last 40 years. We are one liberal justice away from the Supreme Court writing the Second Amendment out of the Constitution. We are one liberal justice away from the Supreme Court ordering Ten Commandments monuments to be torn down, ordering veterans memorials to be torn down, and undermining our fundamental religious liberty.”

This is almost verbatim what Cruz has been saying since Scalia died; on Meet the Press last Sunday, he added colorfully that a liberal majority would mean “the crosses and Stars of David sandblasted off of the tombstones of our fallen veterans.”

There’s no doubt that if and when a new liberal justice takes his or her seat on the Court — either because Obama’s nominee somehow gets confirmed or because Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders wins the election and appoints one — it will be the most significant shift in the Court’s balance in decades. And that’s in large part because the right has gotten so much of what it wanted out of this Supreme Court. While conservatives shake their fists at the Court and call John Roberts a traitor, the truth is that with just a few exceptions, most notably the legalizing of same-sex marriage and the upholding of (most of) the Affordable Care Act, the Roberts Court has delivered the right a spectacular string of victories over the last few years. Among other things, they found an individual right to own guns for the first time in history, knocked down limits on spending by corporations (and unions) on political campaigns, whittled away at affirmative action, gutted the Voting Rights Act, made it harder for employees to sue for sex discrimination, and declared that corporations have religious rights.

Nevertheless, according to the Pew Research Center, in 2008, 80 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of the Supreme Court. By 2015 that figure had fallen to 33 percent. And 68 percent of conservative Republicans described the Court as “liberal,” which is laughable by any standard one could devise.

So what happens now? Margo Schlanger compiled this list of major rulings where Scalia was in a 5-4 majority, all of which could in theory be overturned, from Citizens United to D.C. v. Heller (which established the individual right to own guns) to Shelby County v. Holder (which invalidated key parts of the Voting Rights Act). But that doesn’t mean a liberal majority would go on a rampage, overturning all those settled cases.

“The Supreme Court is a conservative institution as a whole; justices aren’t looking to overturn the apple cart,” Jill Dash of the liberal American Constitution Society told me this morning. She argued that it’s unlikely that a liberal majority would set about to repeal those high-profile decisions, particularly within the first few years of that majority.

Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at the University of Michigan law school who served in the Justice Department under President Obama, also doubts that there would be too many major decisions overturned. “The four more liberal justices currently on the Court take precedent and stare decisis seriously, and I don’t think that will change,” he said.

But there would be change in complex areas of law where the courts are still working through how previous decisions apply to varied situations. Affirmative action is one “where the Court would be much more likely to uphold programs designed to promote diversity in schools and the workplace,” Bagenstos says. He also points to employment law as an area where a liberal majority could chart a new path, in cases concerning arbitration clauses in contracts and what constitutes systemic discrimination. Dash notes that a liberal majority would probably produce a spate of voting rights cases, as challenges to restrictions imposed by Republican state legislatures would find a friendlier hearing, even if Shelby County isn’t entirely overturned.

And then there’s abortion, always at the top of everyone’s mind when the Supreme Court comes up. In recent years, conservative states have pushed the envelope farther and farther in restricting the availability of abortion, with onerous rules on abortion clinics and invasive mandates on the women seeking the procedure. The question is which of these measures violate the Court’s 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which stated that the government can’t impose an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to choose.

The conservative position to this point has been that virtually no burden is “undue.” If the state makes you drive hundreds of miles, wait for days, make multiple visits to a clinic, hear an oration of lies penned by some GOP state legislator about how getting an abortion might give you cancer and drive you mad, so far the Supreme Court has said it’s just what women should have to tolerate.

But that might no longer be true. “A liberal who replaced Justice Scalia would likely read the Casey ‘undue burden’ standard as imposing a much more significant limitation on the regulation of abortion than the Court has in recent years,” says Bagenstos, “so you could see a major practical shift in reproductive rights jurisprudence. I don’t think the Court would overrule any precedent, though. It would just find a wider range of burdens to be ‘undue.’”

In short, a liberal replacing Scalia would be an important change with profound consequences for all Americans’ lives. But it wouldn’t happen all at once, and it wouldn’t be so earth-shattering as to cause riots in the streets. Nobody’s going to sandblast the crosses off the gravestones at Arlington. Nevertheless, conservatives are right to be frightened. They’ve had a long run with conservative dominance of the Supreme Court, and it may be coming to an end. Now they’ll understand how liberals have felt for the last few decades.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, February 18, 2016

February 19, 2016 - Posted by | Conservatives, Liberals, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. To me it would be nice if the court looked more like what America looks like. The President has several excellent choices who would help in that regard who were unanimously approved for their current position. A good choice would beg due process.

    Like

    Comment by Keith | February 19, 2016 | Reply


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