Harry Reid: Democrats running for president need a plan for the Supreme Court

(J. Scott Applewhite | AP file photo) The Supreme Court building is seen at sunset in Washington, Jan. 24, 2019.

When I hear Democrats running for president talk about their ideas to address our country’s urgent problems, I always find myself returning to the same question: What will you do to protect the Supreme Court of the United States?

Senate Republicans have hijacked our Supreme Court. They stole a seat that should have been filled by President Obama in 2016 and they rushed to confirm Brett Kavanaugh last year despite ample evidence that he lied to Congress. The result is the Supreme Court is now a ticking time bomb, set to blow up any meaningful progressive reforms for decades to come. Yet, the court has been the subject of surprisingly little discussion so far in the presidential primary.

I have previously stated the next Democratic president should be willing to eliminate the Senate filibuster to pass big solutions such as a comprehensive climate change proposal. But the reality is, that step alone will not matter much if this Supreme Court proceeds to strike down any such legislation.

That is why any Democratic candidate serious about addressing the urgent crises facing our country needs a plan for dealing with the Supreme Court.

This starts with a public commitment to nominate bold, progressive lawyers to the court. Mitch McConnell’s elimination of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees means that, if Democrats win back the Senate next year, the next Democratic president will not have to cater to unreasonable Republicans to find a justice who can win 60 votes. Instead, there will be an opportunity to nominate justices who have spent their careers fighting for progressive values and can rebalance a Court that is now biased towards the rich and the powerful.

The advocacy group Demand Justice recently released a list of 32 lawyers and legal thinkers whose diversity and breadth of experience stand in stark contrast to the list of white and mostly male candidates proposed by Donald Trump in his 2016 campaign. When I recommended judges for Nevada’s federal courts, I knew diversity would strengthen our judiciary.

Demand Justice’s list includes brilliant women, people of color, and LGBT lawyers. It also prioritizes professional diversity to help rebalance a court currently made up almost entirely of former corporate lawyers and prosecutors. For example, our Supreme Court has not had a justice with criminal defense experience since Thurgood Marshall retired nearly three decades ago. Demand Justice’s list includes several former public defenders, including of Nevada U.S. District Court Judge Richard Boulware, whom I recommended to Obama in 2014.

I am familiar with the concerns that will be raised by those who are too afraid and nostalgic to forge a new path to fight for our courts. When I was Senate majority leader, we faced unprecedented Republican efforts to obstruct Obama’s nominees. As Democrats, we heard endless arguments about whether we should play by an increasingly outdated rulebook that relied on good faith –– even as Republicans offered none –– or whether we needed to change the rules to allow lower-court judges to be confirmed by a simple majority.

Ultimately, my colleagues came to the same conclusion I did: If Republicans were not willing to play by the Senate rules then in place, we could not allow them to continue to trample and hijack our justice system. Changing the rules to confirm Obama’s highly qualified judges was the right and necessary thing to do. If we had not done it, Donald Trump would have inherited more judicial vacancies than he already did, and then even more of his right-wing ideologues would be on the bench today eviscerating rights Americans have long held dear.

Today, we again face circumstances that require Democrats to act boldly. Our sea levels are rising, our kids are undergoing active shooter drills before they learn to read. And now, this stolen Supreme Court will invent reasons to gut any effort big enough to deal with those problems. That must change. Any candidate who wants to lead our party needs a plan to make this change happen.

Harry Reid

Harry Reid is a former United States senator from Nevada, serving from 1987 to 2017. He led the Senate’s Democratic Conference from 2005 to 2017 and was the Senate majority leader from 2007 to 2015.