Steven V. Roberts: The lesson of Judge Jackson

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 25, 2022

Elections have consequences. Just consider two numbers: 234 and 3. The first is how many federal judges Donald Trump appointed during his four years in office. The second is how many of them now serve on the Supreme Court.

Those figures take on much greater significance as the Senate debates Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer. To date, 48 of President Biden’s nominations to federal judgeships have cleared the Senate, including Jackson, who was elevated to the Circuit Court of Appeals last year.

Many Democrats have expressed deep disappointment in Biden, especially liberals who never trusted him in the first place. Now they blame him for failing to enact an overly ambitious agenda they demanded he espouse, proving once again that the Democratic left harbors an almost limitless capacity to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Progressive radio host Dean Obeidallah detailed those grievances in The New Republic and said of his listeners: “Many have spoken of potentially sitting out the 2022 election.”

This is where the symbolism of Jackson’s appointment becomes so critical. Federal judgeships, and Supreme Court selections in particular, often provide the most lasting legacy of any president. Just look at Justice Clarence Thomas, who was appointed by President George Bush more than 30 years ago and is still only 73.

All those liberals who whine about “sitting out” the next election must ask themselves: Do I want more justices like Ketanji Brown Jackson, or more like Clarence Thomas? Or put another way: If Democrats lose the Senate this fall, Biden’s ability to stack the federal bench during the next two years, even without a Supreme Court vacancy, would be severely limited.

Those are the stakes, folks, and they have been raised enormously by two related trends. The first is the increasing paralysis of the legislative branch and its growing inability to confront and resolve many of the most incendiary issues in American public life.

This politicization started with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 that unanimously outlawed segregation in public schools. It accelerated with the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973. A range of other hot-button issues — from same-sex marriage to religion in the public square — further plunged the court into political controversy.

This led to the second trend: the increasingly partisan and acrimonious clashes over Supreme Court nominations. Conservatives still remember, and resent, the defeat of Robert Bork, nominated by President Reagan in 1987. Just a year earlier, Antonin Scalia, the leader of the court’s conservative bloc for a generation, had been unanimously approved by the Senate 98-0.

Today, Borkian battles are the norm. Few, if any, senators even consider voting for an appointee of the rival party. Conservative columnist Henry Olsen admitted this in the Washington Post: “Indeed, no conceivable appointee by a Democratic president could merit conservative support in the current environment.”

In this hypercharged environment, Republicans have done a far better job than Democrats in crystalizing the court as an issue and using it to energize their base.

They have been particularly effective in highlighting the court’s composition to attract evangelical or born-again Christians, who make up about one-quarter of the electorate.

Trump has been married three times, boasts of his sexual conquests and seldom goes to church. Yet 3 out of 4 evangelicals supported him in 2020, and the court was clearly the biggest reason.

Right now, Biden is struggling: His overall favorable rating is stuck in the low 40s. Within his own party, his rating is 79%, according to Gallup — much lower than the 90% of Democrats who supported him during his first months in office.

Biden must shoulder plenty of blame for this decline, which started with his disastrous handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer and has been sorely aggravated by punishing inflation and lingering COVID-19 infections.

But liberal voices like Rep. Cori Bush have fanned the fires of discontent, saying of Biden’s handling of major legislative packages, “I feel angry. I feel hurt. I feel disappointed in so many people.”

Fellow leftist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told New York Magazine in 2020 that the Democratic Party had “too big of a tent.”

That might rank as the stupidest political remark in recent memory. American parties can only win national elections by creating as big a tent as possible. And liberals should remember the lesson taught by conservatives and reinforced by Jackson: Winning matters.

(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. His new book is “Cokie: A Life Well Lived.” He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.)

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.  Email him at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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