Making the Courts a Progressive Priority

If there’s one theme that’s prevalent here at Netroots Nation, it’s that elections matter—but what you do after elections matters more.

In a great panel discussion this morning, six judiciary-watchers discussed why the courts should matter to progressives, and why it’s dangerous when they don’t.

Pam Karlan, a professor at Stanford Law school who is frequently mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee herself, put it this way: “However much progressive legislation we get from Congress, unless it gets enforced every day by district courts, it’s just words on paper.”

Republicans have successfully made the courts an issue for their base, and are trying to work it to their advantage now that they’ve lost power in Congress and the White House. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this month that nearly 40% of federal judges currently serving were appointed by George W. Bush, whose habit of recruiting from the conservative Federalist Society led to an intentional right-ward drift on courts across the country.

In their effort to keep the courts on the Right, Republicans are taking full advantage of their well-practiced obstruction skills.

Nan Aron, president of Alliance For Justice described the Republican game plan to keep the courts: “Hold seats open until a Republican president comes in and he’ll fill them in a New York minute.”

Which is exactly what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to do as he repeatedly refuses to hold votes on confirming President Obama’s judicial nominees. He’s making a deliberate effort to stall all Senate business, but also a calculated plan to keep seats on the federal bench empty for as long as possible with the hope that they won’t be filled by progressives.

What courts do every day—from the Supreme Court down—matters to ordinary people. Indeed, courts are central to our ability to hold corporations and other special interests accountable for harmful behavior. Judicial appointments are essential to securing corporate accountability for environmental safety (just look at the Fifth Circuit, where the judges making important decisions about oil drilling regulation are closely connected to the oil industry); they’re essential to holding businesses accountable for how they treat workers (see Rent-a-Center v. Jackson); and, of course, they’re a critical part of ensuring our civil rights.

Dahlia Lithwick, who covers the Supreme Court for Slate, pointed out that “conservatives have been laser-focused on the court,” while progressives don’t always connect the issues we care about with the courts that ultimately decide their fate.

It's time to change that.

UPDATE: You can watch the full discussion in the video above.

PFAW