As President Obama enters the final years of his term, speculation has been mounting about the possibility of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s departure from the High Court. Despite a recent string of health complications, the 81 year-old continues to be a liberal trail blazer, showing her critics on the right and left that she is capable as ever of being an effective counterweight to a heavy-handed conservative Court. 

While Justice Ginsburg has reassured Court watchers that she has no plans to leave anytime soon, we should still be considering what we want the future of the Court to look like. The 2016 election is going to riddled with all the old suspects: immigration, taxes, and gun control. Yet, with the old age of several other Justices including Antonin Scalia (78) and Anthony Kennedy (78) it’s very possible that the next President may get to choose one, maybe even two replacements in their first term alone. Traditionally, we don’t like to politicize the Court, but the ideological makeup of this important judicial body will inevitably become a campaign issue. This leads me to an indisputably important point; it’s time we had an Asian-Pacific American on the Supreme Court. 


In recent years, the most high-profile Asian-Pacific American nominee has been Berkeley Law Professor Goodwin Liu who was put up for a seat on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010. Liu is a distinguished educator, lawyer, and legal scholar whose work on liberal-leaning issues made him a rising star on the left. There was even talk that the young Taiwanese-American was being bred for a potential nomination to the High Court. 

Liu quickly drew the ire of conservatives because he represented a departure from the painful political subtlety of Obama’s other judicial nominees; he has been unabashedly outspoken on issues of race, criminal law reform, and even current Justices on the Court. Conservatives predictably came out full force and blocked his nomination. Many Asian-Pacific Americans were disappointed to watch his nomination languish in the Senate as Republicans fought tooth and nail to obstruct his confirmation. Even more disheartening was the fact that the President did little to advocate for him, which eventually led to Liu withdrawing his nomination and moving to a judgeship on the California Supreme Court. 

Having an Asian-Pacific American on the Supreme Court is important for many reasons, but ultimately, we need more diverse voices circulating within this historically insular judicial body. Diversity spurs more deliberative decision-making, which is important when the Court considers controversial issues like immigration and affirmative action. Imagine what it would have been like for the Court to have an Asian-Pacific American Justice when it was deliberating issues like Japanese Internment or the Chinese Exclusion Act. 

The media rarely gives lip service to the concerns of Asian-Pacific American voters, and we often don’t see political parties jockeying for our support. One of the reasons why Asian-Pacific American voters aren't discussed in the same way as other demographics is because the media has a hard time identifying what we care about. The media’s careless reduction of the complexity of minority voters is partly responsible. Our community has to push back against the notion that immigration is just a Latino issue or that police violence is just a black issue. 

This President, or the next, needs to carefully consider this point. Bringing diversity to the Court will inspire more Asian-Pacific Americans to become involved in politics. A concerning study from the Pew Research Center echoes this concern. In 2010, Asian voter turnout was a meager 31%, much lower than other racial demographics that year. 

Pushing forward nominees like Sonia Sotomayor and Darrin Gayles, President Obama has used his appointment power to make shrewd political appeals to women, Latinos, and LGBT voters. The nomination of Justice Sotomayor epitomized how identity politics can be used by political parties to buoy support from key demographics. 

Politics aside, nominees like Justice Sotomayor used their notoriety to inspire a movement of politically conscious voters. Our communities should look forward to what kind of leadership Asian-Pacific American judges can bring to the fore. 

That being said, race is not everything. We need to support nominees and candidates who are also in line with the progressive values of our communities. Korean-American Yale Law Professor Harold Koh has been floated multiple times as a name on Obama’s judicial shortlist. Koh is a distinguished Professor who has worked as an adviser at the State Department. Unfortunately, Koh holds questionable positions on issues like targeted killings, which has rattled the confidence of many progressive-minded Asian-Pacific Americans. Also, at 60, the Yale Law Professor with no judicial experience may not be all that attractive to a Democratic President seeking a young and highly-experienced nominee. 

If a vacancy on the Supreme Court happens, the President should ignore conventional wisdom and fill their roster with bold and energetic candidates like U.S. District Court Judge Edmond Chang or Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu. Justice Yu in particular, represents the direction that progressives should be pushing the Court. The first openly-gay woman on the Washington High Court, Justice Yu is bi-racial (born to a Mexican mother and a Chinese father) and is distinguished for her work on racial justice issues. Another potential nominee is Preet Bharara, a U.S. Attorney who has been outspoken in his commitment to battling corruption and reigning in Wall Street. 

Having an Asian-Pacific American on the Court is not going to transform America into a post-racial wonderland where the fight for equality is a relic of the past. However, it will cause many disenfranchised voters to tune in and perhaps even be inspired to create change. We desperately need to have a conversation about race in this country that not only tackles timely and systemic issues like police violence, but also engages more communities of color.

Watanabe is a freelance political writer, specializing in identity and electoral politics.