News / USA

    Supreme Court Politics of Campaign 2016

    U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (L) stands with fellow Justices Anthony Kennedy (2nd from L), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan (R) prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 28, 2014
    U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (L) stands with fellow Justices Anthony Kennedy (2nd from L), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan (R) prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 28, 2014
    There’s no shortage of issues for this year’s congressional midterm elections and the presidential showdown in 2016—the state of the economy, health care and foreign policy all figure into the mix.

    But how about another factor few people are talking about at the moment: the future of the Supreme Court.
     
    President Barack Obama has made two appointees to the high court—Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010. Both women replaced liberal justices, so the political split on the court remained the same: five conservatives and four liberals if you put Justice Anthony Kennedy in the conservative column—even though he often represents the swing vote in five-to-four court decisions.

    Supreme Court appointments are for life, leaving individual justices to decide how long to stay on the job, and since 1980 the average age of a retiring justice has been 79.

    The question is whether President Obama will have an opportunity to name a third justice to the high court some time before he leaves office in early 2017. 

    Who might go?

    Court observers have long thought that the most likely justice to retire next would be Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed to the high court by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

    Now 81 and two-time cancer survivor, Ginsburg has given every indication she would like to stay on the court for a while yet, even if some liberal activists hope she would retire before the end of Obama's term to make way for another liberal appointment — thereby keeping the court's ideological makeup intact.

    In fact, some liberal activists have suggested both Ginsburg and Breyer should time their retirements to give Obama the chance to appoint younger liberals who would remain on the court for years to come.

    While Supreme Court justices tend to say little about their retirement plans, and completely sidestep the issue of possible successors, retired Justice John Paul Stevens had a different view.

    Appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1975, Stevens was replaced by Justice Elena Kagan after stepping down for health reasons in 2010, telling ABC’s “This Week” that it was “natural and appropriate” for a retiring justice to think about a successor.

    “If you’re interested in the job and in the kind of work that’s done, you have an interest in who’s going to fill your shoes," he said.
     
    Three of the other justices are now in their 70s. Justice Antonin Scalia, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, is the longest-serving member of the current court at 78, while Justice Kennedy, a fellow Reagan appointee, is 77, and Justice Stephen Breyer, appointed by President Clinton, is 75.

    None has given any indication of impending retirement.

    Political impact

    A retirement by any one of the conservative justices would likely set off an intense confirmation battle in the Senate. Republicans would probably try to block any attempt by Obama to appoint a proven liberal, which would alter the current five-to-four advantage of court conservatives.
     
    The high court could figure as an issue in this year’s midterm election campaign as well, though most analysts consider it well down the list of priorities for voters more worried about the economy, health care and the budget.

    However, if Republicans can gain the six seats they need to retake control of the Senate, it might make it harder for Obama to nominate a true liberal justice to the court should a vacancy emerge.
     
    Court decisions often have huge political impact. The court upheld the constitutionality of Obama’s signature health care law in 2012, for example, thanks to unexpected support from Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of President George W. Bush. Rulings on gun rights, abortion, affirmative action and same-sex marriage spark intense political debate and sometimes congressional action.
     
    It’s more likely that Supreme Court nominations and the political balance on the court will become an issue in the 2016 presidential election. Given the advanced ages of Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer, a Republican president might have the opportunity to replace both of them with more conservative justices, ensuring the high court has a conservative tilt for years to come.
     
    However, if a Democratic candidate such as Hillary Clinton takes the White House in 2016, she would have the chance to possibly replace some retiring conservative justices with more liberal appointees, shifting the ideological balance on the court from center-right to center-left.
     
    It should be pointed out that Supreme Court justices don’t always conform to the expectations of the presidents who appointed them. Even though he was appointed by Republican Gerald Ford, Stevens turned out to be one of the court’s most reliable liberal votes, whereas, Justice David Souter, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, often annoyed conservatives by siding with liberal justices.
     
    The Supreme Court is rarely a major issue in our election campaigns. But given the sharp ideological divide on the high court at the moment and likelihood for several retirements over the next several years, the election outcome in 2016 could have a huge impact on the court makeup and decisions for years to come.

    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

    You May Like

    Turkey, US Splits Deepen Over Support for Kurdish Militants

    Ankara summons American ambassador to protest remarks by State Department spokesman who said Washington does not consider Syria's Kurdish Democracy Union Party (PYD) a terrorist organization

    Obama Seeking $19 Billion for National Cybersecurity

    Move, touted as attempt to build broad, cohesive federal response to cyberthreats, calls for increase in cybersecurity spending across all government agencies

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire, who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clownsi
    X
    February 09, 2016 8:04 PM
    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Middle East Affairs and national security.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.