Conflict over Supreme Court seat cause of heightened emotions in US

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Conflict over Supreme Court seat cause of heightened emotions in US

The critical United States midterm elections are only one month away, and the drama is overwhelming American society. As this column has previously explained, the midterm elections occur every four years, between presidential elections. All of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one third of the 100 Senate seats are up for grabs. In truth, most incumbents are secure in their prospects this November, but enough seats are contested that both the House and the Senate could switch from Republican to Democrat control. If either occurs, President Trump will find it much more difficult to implement his agenda.

The political temper and vitriol in America has been intense for the past three years, but the level of infighting in American public discourse has spiked over the past month due to the opening of a seat on the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in the US is the final arbiter of the interpretation of laws. The law has a special place in American society. It is often said that the US is, “a country of laws, not men,” meaning each person in America can expect equal treatment under the law, no matter who he is. The law girds American society and delivers justice. 

The Supreme Court consists of nine jurists, called justices. Except in very rare circumstances the Supreme Court does not oversee trials. Usually, it addresses the interpretation of federal law after an appeal from a lower court. The Supreme Court is seen as the primary protector of American freedoms and liberties against government overreach. 

Each of the nine Supreme Court justices enjoys a life tenure on the Court, and this makes the battle for a new justice extremely important to partisans across the country. It is nearly impossible to remove a sitting Supreme Court justice, and then only for criminal activity — it has never happened. Justices either retire at an old age or die in office. This life tenure was instituted by the Framers of the American system to ensure that the justices would be independent of politics. It was most critical to the Framers that the justices would base their legal opinions on the law and their own wisdom and ignore the political pressures around them.

This summer, Justice Anthony Kennedy retired at age 82 after 30 years on the Court. To replace him, Trump nominated a federal judge from a prestigious lower court, named Brett Kavanaugh. After a nomination, it is the job of the Senate to provide “advice and consent” on a nomination for the Supreme Court, but the Senate is almost evenly split, with 51 of 100 seats held by Republicans. No Senate vote is easy these days, and there has been an intense political battle over Kavanaugh for the last three months.

What was already a critical US political season due to the intense sentiments surrounding Trump has now become a tangle of national emotions thanks to the conflict over the Supreme Court seat.

Ellen R. Wald 

The Court has been generally liberal for 80 years, meaning it approves legal interpretations that support social progressivism and large, powerful government. However, Kavanaugh would make the Court more conservative. The stakes are high, and they only serve to heighten the emotions around the coming elections.

There are a handful of Democrat senators who are facing elections in November in states that support Trump overwhelmingly. If they vote against Kavanaugh’s confirmation, they will likely lose any chance of winning their coming elections. But to vote for Kavanaugh they would risk the ire of their party and their power within the party. On the other side, there are at least three Republican senators who personally dislike Trump or come from relatively liberal states and fear the political fallout from voting to confirm Kavanaugh.

Whereas once Supreme Court nominees were typically accepted by the Senate, today the fights are intense. Most Democrats opposed Kavanaugh as soon as Trump chose him in July, and they continued to oppose him after he testified about his judicial philosophy at the beginning of September. But their opposition to Kavanaugh did not reach its zenith until allegations were made against him about a sexual assault alleged to have occurred 36 years ago, when he was in high school.

A California psychologist named Christine Blasey-Ford accused Kavanaugh of inappropriately touching her and perhaps attempting to rape her when they were both teenagers. This led to a new hearing in the Senate, in which both Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh testified. It was on a Thursday and took most of the day, yet a large percentage of America watched despite work obligations. Other allegations surfaced, some of which have been entirely discredited. Dr. Ford has no corroboration for her story, which relies entirely on her statements, some of which are contradictory. Judge Kavanaugh is being accused of other reckless behavior during his school years, although most of the accusations allege nothing more than a typical American teenager’s actions. Who does the country believe? Can or should an accusation derail a man’s career? Is this fight even about the facts or only about political allegiances?

The conflict over the Supreme Court seat has galvanized partisans on both sides of the political spectrum. What was already a critical political season due to the intense sentiments surrounding Trump has now become a tangle of national emotions. There is one more month until election day on 6 November, and the only thing we know for certain is that there will be many unhappy Americans on 7 November. 

 

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter:  @EnergzdEconomy
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