The Supreme Court is of supreme importance in the 2016 Presidential Election. It is so important, in fact, that it was first on the agenda at the third and final presidential debate. While Hillary and Donald talked to, around, and over each other about their vision for the Court and its future justices, one thing was clear: the Court will be the vessel through which the future president’s agenda will drive American politics and culture for the foreseeable future.
Given Justice Scalia’s recent passing and Justice Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer’s ages, the next President will choose one, if not four, new Court justices. There are currently only eight sitting Justices because Congress has failed to pass Obama’s appointment, leaving the appointment of the ninth Justice to the incoming President. The Court often rules in 5-4 decisions. As the Court is currently split 4-4 along ideological lines, the stance of this ninth justice will likely be the deciding factor in major rulings.
Justices are appointed for life. With at least one appointment (and possibly four) pending, the next president will have the opportunity to identify and appoint individuals to the Court who will rule in accordance with the president’s agenda. Unlike the laws or orders that a president may institute during their term, Supreme Court appointments cannot be so easily undone by the subsequent Commander in Chief. So, by shaping the voice of the Supreme Court—a body that makes rulings on a wide range of topics, influencing American culture, politics, and law—the next President will leave an indelible mark on this nation that will allow his or her political and moral ideals to long outlast even an two-term presidency.
Clinton has made it clear that she hopes for a Court that will stand behind individuals and individual rights. Of her perspective on the Court and its importance for the American people, Clinton says, “What kind of country are we going to be? What kind of opportunities will we provide for our citizens? What kind of rights will Americans have?” Her questions emphasize the robust role that the Court’s justices play in American life. Clinton continues, “I feel strongly that the Supreme Court needs to stand on the side of the American people. Not on the side of the powerful corporations and the wealthy.” In terms of rulings, Clinton wants a court that will uphold Roe v. Wade and marriage equality will overturn Citizens United. Of her specific appointments to the Court, Clinton states, “the kind of people that I would be looking to nominate to the court would be in the great tradition of standing up to the powerful, standing up on behalf of our rights as Americans.” Her answer, however vague, points to a clear vision for the court as an envoy of liberal justice and culturally and temporally adjusted interpretations of the Constitution.
While Clinton centered her vision for the Court around a universal sense of equality and liberal advocacy, Trump focused primarily on Second Amendment rights when addressing the Supreme Court. “We need a Supreme Court that in my opinion is going to uphold the second amendment and all amendments, but the second amendment which is under absolute siege,” Trump notes. As for the Justices he plans to appoint, for which he has released a list of 20 potential appointees, Trump assures they “will be pro-life. They will have a conservative bent. They will be protecting the second amendment.” A further appeal to the demographic of change-wary Americans from whom Trump has garnered his most enthusiastic support, Trump promises, “They will interpret the constitution the way the founders wanted it interpreted and I believe that’s very important.” Unfortunately, interpreting the constitution “the way the founders wanted it interpreted” is not so easy to define—hence the centuries long debate around and analysis of the Federalist Papers and the compelling argument that the Constitution, like the law, must be understood as a living document in order to avoid anachronism.
The power of the next President when it comes to the Supreme Court is not lost on congressmen and senators alike; there has been considerable uproar at the prospect of Clinton appointing a liberal justice with threats of “indefinite” blocks to appointees coming from the GOP. Most recently, Republicans have suggested shrinking the size of the Court if Clinton wins. It seems like justice is facing some tough injustice as we wait to find out what and who will tip the scales after Tuesday’s election.