Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement announcement has given President Trump an opportunity to make the Supreme Court more conservative, which could have major consequences for many issues that affect the daily lives of Americans.
Trump is almost certain to nominate a right-wing judge to replace Kennedy, who has long served as the court's swing vote in rulings on contentious matters like abortion and same-sex marriage. The president, who appointed the conservative Neil Gorsuch soon after entering the White House, could make the court even more resistant to progressive ideals.
“We have to pick a great one,” Trump told supporters at a campaign rally in North Dakota. “We have to pick one that's going to be there for 40 years, 45 years. We need intellect. We need so many things.” The president said he is “very honored” that he is in office at the time Kennedy decided to retire “because he felt confident in me to make the right choice and carry on his great legacy.”
The Senate, with its Republican majority, is likely to confirm any right-wing judge that the president selects. The process could help GOP candidates in this fall's mid-term congressional elections. Democrats hope to wrest control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans and perhaps capture the Senate majority.
A second Supreme Court appointment may bolster the president's efforts to enact some of his controversial proposals. “It is going to be impossible for history to forget Trump, like it did Franklin Pierce or James Garfield,” Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and Rice University professor, told CNN.
However, the television network pointed out that the federal investigation of alleged collusion between Russia and Trump's 2016 campaign could derail the president before he can benefit from the court's realignment. Abysmal poll numbers and poor relations with congressional leaders are also hindering the administration.
The court already leans conservative, as evidenced by several rulings this week. In one case, the justices declared that workers could not be forced to pay union dues even if they benefit from negotiated contracts. The decision will accelerate the decline of organized labor, which represents less than 11 percent of U.S. workers.
In a case concerning abortion, the court ruled 5-4 that California officials may not force medical facilities to inform women about health services (including abortion) that the state offers. The decision continues a national trend, as a number of states have enacted laws limiting reproductive freedom. Among the statutes are a requirement that women look at pictures of their fetuses, an official policy of verbally dissuading women from having abortions, and a law banning abortion after a fetus has developed a heartbeat.
In another 5-4 ruling this week, the court upheld Trump's ban on immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries. Lower courts had rejected the president's executive order implementing the policy, which critics consider motivated by bigotry, but this third revised version managed to make the narrow cut.
Such decisions are alarming to liberals, exacerbating their fears of Trump replacing the relatively moderate Kennedy with a hard-line conservative. They worry about the future of Obamacare, reproductive freedom, LGBT rights and other progressive achievements.
“I hope that my Republican colleagues who believe that women, not the government, have the right to control their bodies will stand with those of us who oppose any nominee who would deny women the right to choose," said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California tweeted: “This Supreme Court vacancy puts issues that affect every single American in the balance, from a woman's constitutionally protected right to make her own health-care decisions to privacy, equality and civil rights.” Adam Jentleson, a staffer for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, warned that “any Democrat who votes for Trump's nominee … will be voting to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez declared that Kennedy's retirement would “remove all doubt” about the significance of the November elections. A progressive activist told CNN: “This fight can't be about, 'This is not normal.' This is not normal. That's not what this is. We need to lay out the stakes.”
Republicans are excited about the prospects of a more right-wing Supreme Court. “I think that's the one thing that energizes conservatives more than anything else, is the Supreme Court,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said. A GOP campaign operative predicted that the appointment of another Trump justice would be “a majority saver” for the party in the House and Senate.
Liberals' battle to block Trump's pick is an uphill struggle, but it can be won if two Senate Republicans ally with the chamber's 49 Democrats. Some analysts believe moderate GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska might reject the president's choice. The Senate is sure to be under a lot of pressure, as progressive groups are gearing up for massive protests.