NEW YORK ― The next president could very well set the course of the Supreme Court for far longer than the duration of his or her White House stay, and yet neither candidate gave the subject any play on Monday.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had more than 90 minutes to make their respective cases to the American public at the first of three televised presidential debates in the lead-up to Election Day. But neither nominee spent any time describing their vision for the nation’s high court, let alone the federal judiciary ― a huge part of a president’s legacy.
Part of the blame lies with Lester Holt, who delivered a solid moderator performance but never brought up the subject of the Supreme Court ― a curious move in a debate centered on domestic policy issues.
It was a monumental missed chance, if only because it could’ve reminded millions of voters about an ongoing Supreme Court vacancy that’s breaking all kinds of records ― and helped people understand the intimate ties between a candidate’s policy agenda and the future of the courts.
Clinton has said she wants to build on some of the accomplishments of President Barack Obama, but she has robust policy aspirations of her own ― many of which will undoubtedly be targeted through litigation and are almost certain to land eventually before the Supreme Court.
It’s disappointing that one of the most critical issues facing our democracy, the future of the Supreme Court, didn’t get any airtime in tonight’s debate. Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice
“After years of accusing liberals of judicial activism, conservatives are wholeheartedly relying on Republican-appointed judges to undo progressive achievements,” Clinton wrote in a January op-ed in The Boston Globe. “They’re using radical legal strategies to accomplish through the courts what they’ve failed to do through legislation, like dismembering the Voting Rights Act or attacking unions.”
Trump doesn’t have his rival’s policy chops. And on the campaign trail, he has made clear that not even sitting federal judges or the Constitution itself are out of bounds for his cheap shots. In the face of those indiscretions, he likes to brag that even principled conservatives will eventually bow to him based on whom he might nominate to the Supreme Court.
“Even if you can’t stand Donald Trump, even if you think I’m the worst, you’re going to vote for me,” a confident Trump said at a Virginia rally last month. “You know why? Judges.”
His not-so-short list of potential candidates to the high court is clearly aimed at that on-the-fence crowd ― those who may recoil at the thought of Trump as commander in chief but who may be willing to stomach him as long as he’s the appointer in chief. Just look at Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who last week succumbed to Trump in part due to his Supreme Court promises.
All of this and more could’ve been explored at length at Monday’s face-to-face between Clinton and Trump. Instead, the Supreme Court was a big no-show.
“It’s disappointing that one of the most critical issues facing our democracy, the future of the Supreme Court, didn’t get any airtime in tonight’s debate,” Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, said in a statement. Aron’s group has pushed for a hearing for Merrick Garland, Obama’s choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
Here’s hoping the next debates fix this oversight. With one existing vacancy and the potential for as many as three more in the next four to eight years, the court is likely to shape America’s constitutional future for far longer than the next president will.