We’re not even a full month into 2020, but the unmistakable buzz of a landmark election year is already thick in the air.
Many of us are understandably focused on the massive change Election Day could bring, but three upcoming dates in January offer us a chance to reflect on just what we’re fighting for come November. Equally critically, though, these dates show us why federal courts should matter to all of us — and why Trump’s efforts to pack the courts with narrow-minded elitists are so dangerous.
First up is Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20. Dr. King spent his life fighting for and achieving important civil rights victories concerning voting, housing, and other issues. His call to “give us the ballot” led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and his leadership in the Chicago Open Housing Movement laid the groundwork for the Fair Housing Act, which passed one week after Dr. King’s death.
But right-wing judges, many of whom have been appointed by Donald TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll US ranked 27th least corrupt country in the world MORE, have seriously eroded that progress. Take the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which effectively overturned a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, as one study put it, “opened the floodgates to laws restricting voting throughout the United States.” Nowhere is that more evident today than in states across the South and Industrial North, where African American, Latino and young voters face a myriad of barriers to the ballot box.
More recently, Trump-appointed judges on the 5th Circuit cast crucial votes to seriously cut back rights under the Fair Housing Act, a decision that even a conservative judge appointed by President George W. Bush criticized because it “moves us backwards on the pathway to equality and integration.”
And 10 years ago, on Jan. 21, five conservative justices on the Supreme Court decided, in the disastrous Citizens United case, to overturn congressional limits on election spending. That decision made it legal for corporations, the very wealthy and other special interest groups to spend unlimited amounts of money influencing elections — and dramatically diminished the political power of the rest of us. Eight years later, the amount of such independent expenditures had more than quadrupled, from $205.5 million to over $1.1 billion.
Trump judges have made the situation even worse, most recently in an 8th Circuit decision that partly struck down a state lobbyist registration and disclosure law, despite dissents by two conservative Bush judges. And on the 5th Circuit, a Trump-appointed judge even argued that limits on campaign contributions are unconstitutional, a position rejected by a number of conservative Bush judges.
Finally, Jan. 22, marks the anniversary of the Court’s landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which established women’s right to abortion care. In the last few years, a growing number of states launched an unprecedented assault on reproductive rights, passing extreme early abortion bans and slashing state funds for reproductive health care. And on the federal level, right-wing federal judges, many of them Trump appointees, are also eager to weaken or overturn Roe.
For example, a 6th Circuit Trump judge wrote a decision upholding a restrictive state law that requires doctors to subject women to unnecessary and potentially harmful procedures before providing abortion care. A 5th Circuit Trump judge criticized what he called the “moral tragedy’ of abortion, putting Roe “squarely in his crosshairs.” And in a currently pending Supreme Court case in which Trump appointees Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughHow Cruz Supreme Court case could lead to unlimited anonymous election spending Will the justices end race-based affirmative action? Are the legal walls closing in on Donald Trump? MORE and Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchHow Cruz Supreme Court case could lead to unlimited anonymous election spending Will the justices end race-based affirmative action? Supreme Court to revisit part of Native American land decision in Oklahoma MORE may well cast deciding votes, more than 200 Republican members of Congress recently filed a brief asking the Court to consider overturning Roe.
January’s anniversaries show us why federal courts matter.
As we continue to look forward to Election Day, let’s not forget what we’re fighting for — and the dangerous role that Donald Trump, Republican legislators, and Trump-appointed judges are playing in stripping us of our rights.
Elliot Mincberg is a senior fellow at People For the American Way and a former chief oversight counsel for the House Judiciary Committee.