There are few countries in the world where judges can have as much power as they do in America, and there have been few American judges as influential as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. His death on February 13th marks the passing of one of the true heavyweights of US politics. The news was met with tributes from across the board, although this was soon followed by debate and controversy, something that Scalia saw plenty of in his lifetime. Let alone the mixed feelings about the role he has played over the last few decades, there is also the question of who will replace him as the next Supreme Court Justice of the United States. This is a decision that could have profound effects on the future of America’s laws, politics, and lifestyle.
The American political system is full of peculiarities, one of which is certainly the immense influence of the Supreme Court. Set up to be one of the three branches of government along with the Presidency and Congress, the Supreme Court gained the crucial role of judicial review almost accidentally after the landmark case Marbury v. Madison in 1803. Judicial review is when the court reviews whether or not laws made by the President or Congress are in line with the Constitution. So whenever you hear a debate about whether or not something is constitutional, it is the nine Supreme Court Justices who ultimately decide. They can even strike down state or federal laws approved by Congress and the President. Over the years, this has resulted in the court making some groundbreaking decisions, ranging from denying African Americans US citizenship in 1857 to legalizing gay marriage in 2015.
Once appointed, Supreme Court Justices serve for life, which, although democratically questionable, further extends the influence individual justices can have. Scalia was appointed by President Reagan back in 1986, and he was never afraid to voice his opinions throughout his tenure in the court. He was the leading supporter of the originalist and textualist approach to the Constitution in the Supreme Court, which means focusing on the words of the Constitution alone, and treating its meaning as fixed. That means abiding by the exact words of the Constitution as they were intended to mean when written by the authors in 1789. This is a divisive stance, leaving some in disbelief that we should be so bound to the ideas of 200 years ago, while reassuring others that the Constitution is the cornerstone of conservative American values. For a long time now, five of the nine judges in the court have been considered as adhering to this conservative interpretation of the law, with many rulings being decided on a five to four vote. Hence there is a certain amount of panic in Washington over what his death could mean for the future of US politics.
Scalia oversaw some of the most dramatic supreme court decisions in US history. Just recently these included the legalization of gay marriage with Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) and the approval of President Obama’s health care laws with King v. Burwell (2015). However, arguably Scalia played a greater role in some of the more conservative rulings of recent years such the notorious decision to reduce campaign finance regulation with Davis v. FEC (2008), the striking down of gun control laws in D.C. v. Heller (2008), and the ruling against affirmative action with Parents Involved v. Seattle (2007). This is not to mention Bush v. Gore (2000), a ruling that effectively decided the 2000 Presidential Elections, which we all know could have sent the US in a very different direction than where it is today. Together these cases involved many of the most pressing topics in US politics, and in each case, Scalia’s influence certainly played a major role.
The Supreme Court now lies balanced with roughly four liberal and four conservative judges. Balance might sound healthy, but it could potentially wreak havoc when it comes to actually making final decisions. Furthermore, it cannot be underestimated how important the next choice of Supreme Court Justice could be. Whether conservative or liberal, the stance of the new justice is likely to dominate Supreme Court decisions and therefore US legislation for the years to come. All of the Republican presidential candidates have already declared that President Obama should not appoint a new judge in his final year in office, and that the decision should be decided by the next president. Unsurprisingly, candidates Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders have said conversely that it would be outrageous not to let the President use his authority granted in the constitution, an opinion that Scalia might have had to agree with.
However, Obama’s decision might not matter because Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already brazenly suggested that the Senate will not even hold a vote on any candidate for Supreme Court Justice appointed by Obama. Besides, even if there was a vote, the Republican-controlled Senate would be very unlikely to vote in favor. This makes the presidential election even more important. Whomever does eventually choose the next justice could be making a decision that will reverberate throughout US politics, just as Reagan’s choice of Scalia did in 1986.
- Xan Northcott