Column: Why SCOTUS is the most important issue of the 2016 election

This Oct. 13, 2015, photo shows the Supreme Court in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

When judging presidential candidates we generally look at where they stand on issues such as the economy, foreign policy and immigration. We may look at their experience, whether it be in politics or another field such as business. A candidate’s demeanor may also impact our choice. But in one of the most interesting elections in modern times there is one question few people are asking: how will this candidate affect the Supreme Court? 

The next president may have the opportunity to nominate up to 4 Supreme Court justices. Three of these justices (Scalia, Kennedy and Ginsburg) will be over the age of 80 by 2016 and Stephen Breyer is 77. Because of this, the next president could have an almost unprecedented influence of the Court. The last president to nominate four justices was Richard Nixon. This may not seem very important to many people because the Supreme Court is often viewed as the least powerful branch of the federal government. However, many of its decisions have had major impacts on the United States, including the ruling on gay marriage to Citizens United to Roe v. Wade. 

The Supreme Court is currently conservative by a 5-4 majority. The four justices listed above are split, with Scalia and Kennedy tending to vote conservative and Ginsburg and Breyer tending to vote liberal. If Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders became president the Court could potentially swing to a 6-3 liberal majority.

If a conservative like Trump or Carson won the office then conservatives could move up to a 6-3 or even 7-2 majority. Because Supreme Court justices serve for life, these four justices, conservative or liberal, would pontentially be on the Court for the next 20 years. The election of the new justices by the next president could have a critical impact on not only future decisions but past ones as well. 

The question to ask, therefore, is this: how will the decisions made by a liberal court be different from a conservative one?  

A liberal court would be more likely to hear challenges to decisions such as Citizens United, Hobby Lobby and Vieth v. Lubelirer. The Citizens United decision allows Super PACS and other groups to donate large sums of money to candidates. Since the decision, donors such as the Koch brothers have been able to “buy” candidates. Liberal justices could potentially remove “big money” from the political process. In the Hobby Lobby case, the Court ruled that even though the Affordable Care Act mandated that employers provide medical coverage for contraception, a business could still deny their employees this coverage on the grounds of religious freedom. In other words, a corporation’s belief that they should not allow workers to have access to contraception outweighs that worker’s right to have contraception.

The last case was a decision not to hear any arguments about gerrymandering, a process in which political parties redraw district lines to give themselves an advantage in elections. For example, House Democratic candidates got a total of 1.4 million more votes than their Republican counterparts but the Republicans still maintained a 247-188 advantage. A liberal court would likely hear and overturn these decisions, as well as others. 

A more conservative Court would also likely challenge and overturn some past decisions, such as Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in the U.S. It is also probable that the recent ruling on gay marriage could be overturned in favor of a policy that would allow states to decide for themselves whether or not people should be allowed to marry same-sex partners. And with the current court recently gutting some provisions of the Voting Rights Act it is uncertain what voting rights protections a more conservative court could remove. Furthermore, it is almost certain that gerrymandering, the right of an anti-gay business to ignore federal law, and big money in politics will remain with a conservative court. 

The domestic and foreign policy decisions of our future president are certainly important. But they will only be in office for 4-8 years. While they will shape our nation’s future in many ways it is imperative when voting that we consider the potentially large number of appointed justices that will define the political landscape of the United States for a generation.


Jacob Kowalski is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.