This week the U.S. Supreme Court opened a new term, for the first time in Barack Obama's presidency without a new Justice joining the high court. Also this week, two of the Justices testified before Congress in an historic hearing on the role of judges under the U.S. Constitution. A new national conversation about the third branch and the Constitution is gaining the attention of more Americans every day, and it's one all of us should join.
History shows that nearly every major political issue ends up in the courts. Our nation's federal courts are where social security appeals are heard, employment cases decided, immigration issues settled, and where Americans vindicate their most cherished Constitutional rights. This year is no different.
This Supreme Court term, lasting through June 2012, promises to be a significant one, with decisions affecting every American. The cases the court will decide this term alone highlight what's really at stake for all Americans, far beyond any single election or individual term in office.
Consider these important questions the Court is poised to decide: the constitutionality of the Obama Administration's landmark health care reform legislation; the constitutionality of warrantless surveillance of Americans using GPS tracking devices; the constitutionality of Arizona's controversial racial profiling immigration law; questions relating to the Family and Medical Leave Act; the constitutionality of religious organizations discriminating in hiring decisions; constitutional questions about the reliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases (a key issue in the recent Georgia execution of Troy Davis).
This is a veritable hit parade of issues progressives, independents -- indeed all Americans -- care deeply about.
Until recently, the courts were generally friendly to progressive public policies. Indeed the federal courts helped to enable the social and economic progress that has made our country stronger and more inclusive over time. Courts were able to do so by adhering to the text and history of the U.S. Constitution and its amendments, and applying the Constitution's core principles and values to questions of the day.
Conservatives, unhappy with idea that the Constitution guarantees more opportunity all our citizens instead of just for the already-privileged few, have in recent years mounted a concerted political effort to remake the federal judiciary in their image: to be more activist and more closely aligned with their political views. Americans used to be able to sleep at night knowing the federal courts were good guardians of our most cherished constitutional principles. Now, the rights many Americans take for granted, like equal access at the voting booth and the ability to challenge discrimination at work, increasingly find a hostile and activist audience in the nation's courts.
But progressives have a chance to turn the tide. Today, there are a record number of vacancies in our federal courtrooms, as a new Center for American Progress study released this week shows. Unprecedented obstruction by conservative U.S. Senators has led to an abysmal rate of judicial confirmations. This has left a level of empty judgeships not seen at any time under any president in U.S. history. Fully two thirds of the country is living in a jurisdiction without enough judges for the cases that are piling up. It means less access to justice and longer delays in court for the American worker and small business owner.
It doesn't have to be this way. Progressives need to work together to support making our judiciary more progressive -- and to support the confirmation of President Obama's nominees. It's time for the judiciary to be a priority for progressives.
The judges progressives want on the bench are judges for all Americans -- judges who follow the text and history of the Constitution and apply it faithfully to the questions before them. At a time when the Tea Party is cherry-picking select provisions of the Constitution and discarding others to win short-term political arguments, we need the federal judiciary to be a strong guardian of all of our Constitution's provisions and amendments for the long-term. With increasingly conservative state legislatures rolling back gains progressives have championed for decades, we need our courts to protect our Constitutional values from the political winds of the moment. These values -- liberty, freedom, equality -- have driven America's progress since its founding, and are what make America exceptional around the world today.
Our courts matter for all Americans. And who is on the courts should matter to anyone who cares about the Constitution and the opportunities and protections it promises. It's time for progressives to unite and support getting more progressive judges on the federal bench. Nothing less than the long term health of our democracy depends on it.
Andrew Blotky is the director of Legal Progress, the legal policy program at the Center for American Progress.