Will Obama fight for a liberal on top court?

(NNPA)—The coming resignation of Justice John Paul Stevens from the Supreme Court sets up a new fight for his successor and a question that I and others have. Will President Obama appoint someone as liberal as Stevens has become? An indication of where the president might be coming from is the comment that he made when the Citizens United case was decided last year.

Then, he said it was a victory for powerful interests like banks, oil companies and etc. that, “marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”


He repeated this sentiment at his State of the Union address and after the recent announcement by Justice Stevens that he would resign, saying Stevens’ replacement would be “someone who knows that in a democracy, powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens.”

This theme assumes that the president will appoint someone who is clearly allied with the politics of the people rather than powerful interests.

But the pressures on the president are inexorable. The most important is the system of appointment that represented the sentiments of the White majority that are right-of-center. Conservative politics would not be as powerful without their support since most Whites vote Republican. Justice Stevens, a Republican appointed by a Republican president, said that the court had moved beyond him in becoming more conservative. So, when the advice by pundits and Republicans is for the president to pick a “centrist” or a “moderate,” they mean someone within the ideological orbit of the dominant White majority.

I point to the dominant White majority as the arena where this decision will be made because Blacks and other peoples of color are largely excluded from the legislative debate and the power that determines who will sit on a court that ostensibly represents all Americans. Blacks are largely missing in the Senate which confirms the justices and the public debate routinely excludes their opinions. The last time I was interviewed on CSPAN I said that Justice Clarence Thomas was a product of the conservative movement and an embarrassment to the African-American community and I have not been invited back since.

Another pressure is to what extent the coming debate over Stevens’ replacement will affect the fall elections. I agree that the nominee will signal how much of a political problem Obama can take because I can hear his colleagues who are up for election cautioning him not to make it harder with a choice that would inflame their voting constituents.

With the Tea Party phenomenon having emboldened the Republicans to begin thinking they will take back the House and Senate, Democrats are already running scared. The contradiction, however, is that the White House has to think about putting a vote on the Supreme Court that will protect the health care package just passed and signed into law, part of which may surely be challenged and some of it may reach the Supreme Court.

I think that the Black community should support Eric Holder. Now I know that some view this as a silly suggestion and that Obama can’t make such an unsophisticated political choice. However, my mood is bolder and my political intelligence tells me that we didn’t make strides in American politics through sophistication alone. At this moment, my sense of Black politics says that we have to use our leverage to engage the essential debate on the character of the next Supreme Court nominee that takes place outside our community and doesn’t take our views into consideration.

Thus, our support for Holder becomes a vehicle for intervening in that decision to bring some balance to a right-of-center debate and to represent the interests of the people that Obama says must be reflected on the Supreme Court. In other words, we have to help make him put as progressive a person on the court as possible. Intervention is very important because the absence of Stevens will ironically weaken the liberal or progressive stance on the court because a junior person will not have the status to negotiate a vote away from the conservative bloc to create a winning majority for progressive causes.

Since we live at a time when conservative activists are tolerated and liberal activists are not, it will require a genuine mobilization on the left to make sure that a liberal is nominate to the court because “centrists” and “moderates” are untrustworthy in the current context. Also, since the current cast of prospects emerged from the last nomination fight, if not Holder this time, maybe next.

(Dr. Ron Walters is a political analyst and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland College Park.)


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