The presidential election will decide not just who leads the executive branch but who appoints federal judges. With four justices in their 70s, the next president likely will make at least one appointment to the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court, impacting the law for a generation. President Barack Obama's court picks would be moderate and humane, as they have been so far, while Republican Mitt Romney promises to nominate conservative activists who would turn back the clock on a swath of progressive advances and rights.
We already know the kind of justices President Barack Obama would choose. He appointed two, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who have since ruled to limit corporate money in political campaigns, protect women from discrimination, shield consumers from corporate harm, and uphold the Affordable Care Act, the greatest safety net expansion since Medicare. Romney, who has denounced Sotomayor, would look for a very different set values in his justices. His models are Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, the court's fiercest conservatives, who are pretty dependable votes to limit civil rights, economic justice and environmental regulations, as well as decimate church-state separation.
Romney sent a powerful signal to economic and religious conservatives by tapping Robert Bork as a key judicial adviser. Bork was the Reagan Supreme Court nominee rejected in 1987 by a bipartisan U.S. Senate as too radically conservative and out of mainstream legal thought. Bork notoriously said there is no right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution. He accepted state laws banning contraception even for married couples, while rejecting parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that desegregated lunch counters. Despite these extreme views, Romney has said he wishes Bork "were already on the court."
Women should be particularly concerned. The oldest liberal members of the high court are Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg. who is 79, and Stephen Breyer, who is 74. Scalia and Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's sole centrist, are 76. All it would take is for one Romney nominee to replace Kennedy or one of the court's liberals for Roe vs. Wade to be overturned. Romney has said he rejects Roe, the 1973 ruling that guarantees women the right to choose an abortion, and would leave abortion regulation to the states. This would wipe away decades of reproductive freedom rights and progress in women's health.
But Roe's demise is just the start of the precedents at risk by an activist conservative court that would seek to strike down federal regulations, expand states' rights and roll back long-standing civil rights and liberties.
Romney's judicial picks would be out of touch with the values of most Americans. They would likely set back the rights of women, side with states that want to interfere with minority voting rights, allow more taxpayer money to fund religious activities, protect polluters and shut the courthouse door to little-guy consumers, workers and gays seeking equal rights. This legacy would last for decades after Romney left office, and voters should reflect on the long-term implications for the nation as they cast their ballots for president.