George Bush’s presidency ended two and a half years ago, but his legacy continues to profoundly harm American society. I’m not referring to the Iraq War, to the destruction of New Orleans, or to the fiscal policies that created record federal deficits and triggered a global financial crisis. I’m referring to his two Supreme Court appointments: John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
The Supreme Court term that just ended marks one of the most extreme expansions of corporate power at the expense of ordinary Americans that the country has ever witnessed. Dalhia Lithwick’s recent article in Slate on the topic is a harrowing must-read. Not only did the Court throw out class action suits against some of the world’s biggest corporations; it also pointed the way for corporations to keep stiffing workers and evading responsibility. At a time when American wages are stagnating, union rights are being stripped, and globalization is putting ever more jobs at risk, the Court’s gifts to big business couldn’t come at a worse time for the lower and middle classes.
All of the key decisions were decided by 5-4 majorities that included the votes of Justices Roberts and Alito. And these decisions came on the heels of the Citizens United ruling, decided by the same 5-4 majority, which overturned decades of precedent to give corporations virtually unlimited ability to donate to candidates. The result has been a huge increase in corporate election spending, free of accountability and brimming with lies and propaganda.
In a recent interview, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, no liberal, expressed disagreement not only with the Citizens United decision; she also confessed to a general unease with the direction the new Court is taking—including on abortion rights, where she was regarded as a moderate. O’Connor was replaced by Alito, and his single vote has had a tremendous impact on the Court’s direction.
Alito, you’ll remember, wasn’t the first person Bush nominated for the O’Connor seat. He first chose Harriet Miers, the White House legal counsel. But Miers was a relative unknown, and the far right wasn’t interested in taking any chances; it mounted a full-court press to discredit Miers, and eventually forced her withdrawal. Bush replaced her with the known right-leaning Alito, whom he knew would satisfy the GOP base. It is now clear that the far right’s work to get Miers replaced by Alito has paid off handsomely.
Alito, only in his 50s, should serve well into the middle of the 21st century. He’ll be a reliable vote in helping to strip workers of their rights, to keep chipping away at Roe v. Wade and perhaps overturn it, and to continue the expansion of corporate and executive power.
Fortunately, Obama has made two great additions to the Court with Justices Kagan and Sotomayor. Chances are, however, that any near-term additional opportunities would only replace liberal justices (Ginsburg and Breyer), which won’t change the liberal/conservative composition of the Court. If for some reason Justices Ginsburg and Breyer don’t retire before the 2012 election, and Obama loses, a new Republican President could have a golden opportunity to turn a 5-4 right wing majority into a overwhelming 7-2 majority.
I shudder to think of the consequences for social programs, women’s rights, and the environment if this comes to pass. There is no more powerful evidence than Supreme Court appointments that elections have far-reaching consequences, stretching well beyond the terms of specific political offices. Nominating Alito to replace O’Connor will likely prove one of George W. Bush’s longest and most pernicious legacies.