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“Must Vow To Never, Ever, Betray The Conservative Cause”: GOP Candidates Will Now Have To Promise Supreme Court Litmus Tests

With two dramatic and far-reaching liberal decisions in as many days at the end of last week, the Supreme Court laid Republicans low, dashed their hopes and spat on their dreams, made them beat their breasts and shake their fists at the heavens. And in both cases, it was a conservative justice (or two) who joined with the liberals to do it. So while there will be a lot of discussion among Republicans about where they should go from this point forward on the issues of health care and gay rights, you can be sure that they’re also going to spend a great deal of time talking about how they can make sure this kind of thing never happens again. Conservatives already hated Anthony Kennedy, and now some have decided that John Roberts is a traitor as well. If you’re a Republican presidential candidate, you’d better have a strong argument for why whoever you’ll appoint to the Supreme Court will never, ever, ever betray the conservative cause.

In the first couple of days, the candidates reacted much as you think they might, with varying degrees of displeasure built on time-tested conservative cliches about judicial restraint and judges not legislating from the bench. Which was a little odd, since in one of two decisions (King v. Burwell), what they were hoping for was a little more judicial activism. Nevertheless, they’ve been saying those things for so long that it may be understandable. So when Hugh Hewitt asked Jeb Bush how he would avoid future betrayals like these, he said only, “You focus on people to be Supreme Court justices who have a proven record of judicial restraint.” Rick Perry said much the same, that he would “appoint strict Constitutional conservatives who will apply the law as written.” Marco Rubio reached farther back, arguing that “As we look ahead, it must be a priority of the next president to nominate judges and justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood.” Scott Walker issued a statement on his Facebook page about “five unelected judges” but passed on an opportunity to rail about them the next day. If you wanted a real denunciation of the Supreme Court that went beyond an objection to the substance of their decisions, you’d have to go to second-tier candidates like Ted Cruz, who proposed recall elections for Supreme Court justices, or Mike Huckabee, who loaded up his rhetorical musket to march at the Supreme Court redcoats. “I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch,” he said. “We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.”

But guess what? That’s not going to be good enough for Republican voters anymore. Here’s what’s going to happen: At one town hall meeting after another, a Republican primary voter will stand up to the candidate before them and say, “What are you going to do about the Supreme Court?” Then everyone else will lean in to listen.

As well they should. Given the ages of the justices (four are over 76 years old) and the fact that the next president will probably have the chance to appoint a liberal to replace a conservative or vice versa for the first time since Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall in 1991, there may be no single issue in the 2016 campaign of greater importance than the Supreme Court. If Hillary Clinton replaces a conservative justice, the court would swing to a liberal majority; if a Republican replaces a liberal justice, there would be a solid conservative majority with Anthony Kennedy no longer holding the swing vote.

Right now, conservatives are feeling like they’ve been betrayed. As conservative writer Matt Lewis noted on Thursday, “conservatives thought they had figured it out. The right created an impressive infrastructure and network to identify and promote conservative lawyers, clerks, and would-be judges,” and it was designed to keep these kinds of defections from happening. And Chief Justice Roberts was supposed to be the model for how it would work: a young, accomplished lawyer who did his apprenticeship in the Reagan Justice Department, where, like his colleague Samuel Alito, he imbibed the foundations of conservative legal thinking.

As it happens, the John Roberts whom Republicans are now denouncing as a traitor for his ruling in King v. Burwell is also the justice who engineered the unshackling of billionaires’ money in politics, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and the Court’s first declaration of an individual right to own guns — along with dozens of other extremely important and extremely conservative rulings in recent years. If anything, he’s an ideologue but not a partisan, meaning he sometimes does what’s in conservatives’ long-term interests, even if it isn’t what the Republican Party wants at the moment.

But the old Republican cry of “No more Souters!” may now be replaced by “No more Kennedys and Robertses!” Republican candidates are going to have make it very clear to primary voters that they have a whole list of litmus tests, and any lawyer or lower-court judge who fails to satisfy each and every one won’t be getting nominated to the Supreme Court. Vague words about judicial restraint and respecting the Constitution aren’t going to cut it.

I’ve argued before that litmus tests for Supreme Court appointments aren’t a bad thing — instead of having candidates pretend that they’re only interested in finding wise and humble jurists, and having the Court nominees themselves pretend that they have no opinions on any legal questions, we should just get everything out in the open so we can all know what we’re in for. In the past, Democrats have been more willing to discuss the litmus tests they have (particularly on abortion), while Republicans have insisted that they only want judges who will respect the Founders and interpret law, not make law. Of course, that isn’t really what they want — when the circumstances are right, they’re only too happy to have judges make laws (or overturn them) if it produces the outcome they prefer.

So if nothing else, the Republican candidates will have to be a more honest now. But they can’t be too honest. Tell everyone that you will tolerate only Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade, strike down the Affordable Care Act, restrict workers’ rights, roll back environmental regulations and get even more big money into politics, and you coulan, d run into trouble with general election voters. That makes it a tricky balance to strike, which is pretty much the story of the entire 2016 campaign for Republican candidates: Appealing too strongly to primary voters means potentially alienating the broader electorate, on almost every issue that comes up. As dramatic as the past week was, other issues will eventually push the ACA and gay marriage out of the headlines, at least for a while here and there. But in the short run, the candidates are going to face a lot of pointed questions about whom they plan to put on the Supreme Court.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, June 29, 2015

June 30, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, GOP Presidential Candidates, SCOTUS | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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