Frustrated liberals say Democrats aren't aggressive enough on courts

Frustrated liberals say Democrats aren't aggressive enough on courts

Progressive groups worried the President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE and Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats seek leverage for trial Democrats spend big to put Senate in play House Democrats to vote on flavored e-cigarettes ban next year MORE (R-Ky.) have tilted courts to the right for a generation are expressing disappointment that the Democratic candidates for president aren’t being more forthright on what they’d do to counter Republicans if they win the White House. 

While proposals such as adding seats to the Supreme Court were tossed about earlier in the campaign, they appear to have faded and the court wasn't mentioned once in Tuesday and Wednesday night’s debates. 

Democrats running in the 2020 race have yet to make firm commitments on what kind of justices they would nominate if Supreme Court vacancies open up, and they have not set out plans for counteracting Trump’s flood of conservative judges across the federal courts.

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The lack of action is leaving groups scratching their heads as to why Democrats aren’t acting aggressively on the topic that many credit as helping Trump win the presidency in 2016. 

“It's particularly striking or surprising, given that according to Donald Trump, his major accomplishment over the past few years is putting judges and justices on the court who will turn the clock back on our rights and liberties,” said Nan Aron, the president of the progressive Alliance for Justice. 

“This is the issue which McConnell has seized upon time and time again and has made changing the face of the federal bench his number one task,” she continued. “It's striking, and the American people are beginning to feel the immediate effects of these judges.”

Trump has repeatedly touted the successful confirmations of Justices Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchSupreme Court denies Trump request to immediately resume federal executions House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Justices appear cautious of expanding gun rights in NY case MORE and Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Progressives hope to avoid drug-pricing showdown with Pelosi | 'Medicare for All' backers get high-profile hearing | Dems take victory lap after eliminating drug protections in trade deal Justices grapple with multibillion-dollar ObamaCare case Potential Dem defectors face pressure on impeachment MORE, which solidified a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, as among his biggest achievements.

And it was the president’s unveiling of a list of potential Supreme Court nominees, guided by conservative groups like the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, that many believe to be the tipping point for some Republicans otherwise wary of their party’s nominee ahead of the 2016 election.

McConnell has overseen the confirmation of Trump-nominated federal judges at a breakneck speed. The Senate has approved more than 100 judges during Trump’s presidency, including a record number of appellate judges and 13 judges this week alone.

Progressive groups are cheering on the number of Democratic presidential candidates who have indicated they would support expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court: Roughly a dozen of them have backed it so far, and South Bend Ind. Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 Krystal Ball warns about lagging youth support for Buttigieg MORE has introduced a plan to do so.

But they say they’re frustrated with a lack of plans to counteract the tide of conservative judges on lower courts, and they say Democrats aren’t treating the Supreme Court with the importance it deserves on the campaign trail.

“The fact that we're not seeing aggressive judicial reform plans from the candidates is a very worrisome sign that the candidates don't understand that democracy is on fire,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the progressive group Take Back the Court

“Democracy cannot function when the Supreme Court is stolen, democracy cannot function when the lower courts are stolen,” added Belkin, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University. “In other words, you can't have a functioning democracy if only one political party gets to fill judicial vacancies.”

Even conservatives say they’re surprised by the lack of dialogue by Democrats about the Supreme Court. Groups from both sides of the aisle sent letters to CNN ahead of this weeks’ debates, asking the moderators to raise the topic to the candidates.

Mike Davis, a former GOP Senate and White House aide and the founder of the conservative Article III Project, said that with little chance of much legislation making its way through a divided Congress, “the only game in town is the confirmation of federal judges.” Davis’s group was founded to support Trump’s judicial nominees.

He and other conservatives are banking on being able to use Trump’s influence on the courts as a major talking point during the 2020 election, hoping it’ll succeed the way Trump’s nominee list did in 2016.

“When the topic is about the federal judiciary and the confirmation of President Trump’s judges, the president is going to win that political fight every time,” Davis told The Hill.

Non-partisan groups have also raised concerns about the lack of talk on the courts.

“I think the Democrats have had some catching up to do in terms of making the Supreme Court a hallmark campaign issue,” said Gabe Roth, director of the non-profit Fix the Court. 

But he said he was hopeful that it would gain traction as the campaigns progress.

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“I think it's moving in that direction,” Roth added.

Advocates offered criticism of the debate moderators and the candidates for the lack of conversation about the courts so far. Both progressive and conservative groups sent letters to CNN ahead of the debates, asking for the courts to be raised as a topic.

Buttigieg was the only candidate to reference reforms to the Supreme Court, during Tuesday night’s debate.

CNN spokespeople did not return The Hill’s request for comment.

Liberals are also wrestling with a potential answer to Trump’s list of conservative Supreme Court nominees.

Alliance for Justice announced in June that it would work with other groups on an initiative called “Building the Bench,” aimed at gathering the names of progressive judges that Democratic candidates could use to fill open judgeships, and even Supreme Court vacancies.

But the group has faced some criticism for not committing to making the names publicly available, the way Trump did with his list of potential Supreme Court nominees.

Aron, the president of Alliance for Justice, defended the approach in an interview with The Hill. She said that it made more sense to guard the names, as it applied to potential nominees across the judicial system, and not just Supreme Court seats.

“Our effort is focused on judges who have a demonstrated commitment to equal justice, who come from a diversity of backgrounds and demographics,” Aron said, arguing that a majority of the judges put forward by Trump are white men.

But, she conceded, no Democratic candidates have reached out to her organization so far about the project.

Democrats have also struggled to answer how they will get their judicial nominees, particularly any for the Supreme Court, through a Republican-controlled Senate.

During the debates in June hosted by NBC, several of the candidates responded to a question on the topic posed by MSNBC Rachel MaddowRachel Anne MaddowButtigieg says he doubts consulting work for insurer led to layoffs CNN Pelosi town hall finishes third in cable news ratings race, draws 1.6M SNL mocks Buttigieg campaign's viral dance video as part of strategy to get 'a negative percentage of the black vote' MORE by saying that Democrats need to win back control of the Senate.

McConnell blocked former President Obama’s judicial nominees through the final years of Obama’s second term, most infamously by refusing to hold a vote for Supreme Court nominee Merrick GarlandMerrick Brian GarlandAppeals court clears way for Congress to seek Trump financial records Divisive docket to test Supreme Court ahead of 2020 Majority disapprove of Trump Supreme Court nominations, says poll MORE.

The Senate majority leader has since said that he would work with a Democratic president on a Supreme Court nominee. But some aren’t taking him at his word, after McConnell also said that he would hold a vote on a Trump Supreme Court nominee during an election year, after using that same reasoning to block the vote on Garland.

“It’s complete disingenuous bull----,” Belkin said of McConnell’s promise.

And he said that even if a Democratic president is able to achieve other policy goals, like legislation on healthcare and criminal justice reform, the conservative reshaping of the courts could put those achievements at risk.

“All these big ideas that the candidates have are worthless, unless the Democrats do something about the courts. Because even if a Democrat is elected, and manages to pass great legislation concerning economic inequality, healthcare, climate, guns, the stolen Supreme Court is going to rip up those laws,” Belkin said. 

“And if the candidates don't get that, they shouldn't be taken seriously as candidates.”