(The following was written by NYSUT retiree Linda Ulrich-Hagner for the AFT blog, Schoolhouse Voices.)
I’ve always been a history buff on how government works and always encouraged my students to be participants in the political process. My principal used to say: “She thinks she’s teaching social studies.” My teaching discipline was home economics (family and consumer sciences) and my students were advocates on a variety of political and social issues over my 33 years teaching. These days, when I think about the Supreme Court, there is a knot in my stomach. If, as a nation, we don’t come together to elect Hillary Clinton as president, we will change the course of our judicial branch of government — for a long time.
Hillary Clinton has served as a U.S. senator, secretary of state and first lady, but her longest-lasting legacy if elected president will be the future of the Supreme Court. Not only will the next president fill Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacancy but there will undoubtedly be more justices replaced.
As a union, we recently celebrated Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. It was a 4–4 decision, which means the lower-court ruling stands. For now. Scalia was widely expected to side with the plaintiffs, which would have made “right-to-work-for-less” the law of the land. Union energy would have been sapped in a constant need to sign and re-sign members — diverting resources away from the work they want to do, the work we need them to do. When the case was argued in January, the court’s conservative majority seemed ready to side against strong unions. Make no mistake: There will be future challenges in the courts to weaken unions and we must make sure our next president understands the implications of balance of power for each appointment to the court.
Can you imagine Donald Trump in this decision-making capacity? The person who recently said: “We will begin moving them out day one!” Trump’s words sound like a developer on a construction site. During the summer of 2013, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lectured at the Chautauqua Institution, where I spend my summers. She spoke about her two great passions: law and opera. Earlier this summer, Justice Ginsburg took a stand on Trump. She said: “He is a faker. He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego. … How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns?” After public criticism, she walked it back, which disappointed me. Still, I believe this was an exercise in social restraint and nothing more. I would bet the fears and anger that drove Justice Ginsburg’s earlier comments are very much alive in this political season.
It’s important to remember that we’ve been here before with the court. The high court has often been left with eight justices due to death, retirement, resignation, recusal or reassignment. President Harry Truman in 1945 reassigned Justice Robert H. Jackson as the prosecutor for the Nuremberg trials to bring the perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice for their crimes against humanity. The trials lasted nine months and verdicts were handed down for 22 high-ranking Nazis. Jackson’s final Supreme Court vote was on Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to strike down segregated schools. He died five months later. Jackson’s opinions are cited today and he continues to have a presence on the courts.
The stakes are high for the new president, who will shift the judicial landscape for generations to come.
On today’s court, we have Anthony Kennedy, age 80; Ginsburg, age 83; and Stephen Breyer, age 78. Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes served the court from 1902 to 1932 and retired at age 90. Kennedy, Ginsburg and Breyer could go to 90, but it is unlikely. So the stakes are high for the new president, who will shift the judicial landscape for generations to come. New justices will set the values and directions of the court. We need a reasoned, rational, balanced, experienced president who is focused on issues that face the nation, issues that will surface in the courts. Poverty, immigration, discrimination, the right to vote, health care, family planning, “weapons of war” gun control, campaign finance reform, the environment, climate change — these issues reach into our lives politically and personally, and they will be on the docket in some form or fashion. There will be emerging court decisions on all these issues. Make your vote count. Think the Supremes for life!