With every lever they pull, hole they punch, or tiny circle they fill in, voters on Nov. 4 will be deciding much more than who is our next president. We’ll be deciding what life is like in our community, in our state, across this nation…not just for the next two, four, or six years, but for decades. Maybe centuries.
That’s because, whatever else they do with the trust of public office, many of the men and women elected next week – especially the new president – will be involved in the selection of our judges. And the legal ripple effects of those selections will be felt long, long after they leave their own responsibilities behind.
Something in those black robes just seems to bestow longevity. During Bill Clinton’s second term, one of Harry Truman’s judicial appointees was still able to decide cases – after nearly half a century on the bench. Six of the current Supreme Court justices will be 70 or older when the new president takes office in January. One, John Paul Stevens, is now 88 and has been serving for more than 30 years.
Given the age of so many of the current justices, many believe the next president will have the opportunity to name at least two – maybe more – new judges to the Supreme Court over the next four to eight years. And his impact on the lower courts – where most appeals stop – will be even more dramatic: he’ll be able to significantly shift the ideological balance on at least nine of the 13 federal appeals courts.
The potential of this new generation of judges to effectively rewrite American law on a host of crucial issues is almost incalculable. Everything hinges on whether those chosen are committed to judicial restraint, originalism (that is, applying the Constitution as written) or judicial activism (revising the Constitution to suit the political and cultural whims of the times).
Inevitably, the character of these judges carries enormous implications for the country. For instance, the sweeping decision of then-Chief Justice Roger Taney in the infamous Dred Scott case of 1857 – the terrible ruling that deemed blacks inferior beings and prohibited the government from limiting slavery – is widely considered one of the precipitating sparks of the Civil War.
And the very personal views that Justice Harry Blackmun grafted onto the Constitution in his infamous decision in Roe v. Wade have – for 35 years now – provided legal cover for the murder of millions of preborn babies.
Alan Sears, a former federal prosecutor in the Reagan Administration, is president and CEO of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal alliance employing a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.