Columns, Opinion

Lessons from the Left: Trump’s achievement — reshaping the courts

Trump has been president for exactly one year and 79 days. He can serve out the remainder of his term, which would end in 2020, or he could get reelected and sit in office until as late as 2024. To many people, that can and does feel like a long time. But if you think about it, that’s only a slice in the absolute long-term political trajectory. As easy as Trump did away with Obama’s policies, Trump’s successor can do away with his.

The greatest, most unfortunate impact of the Trump administration thus far isn’t administrational though. In fact, it isn’t even legislative or political, and it has nothing to do with Russia, porn stars or Jared Kushner — as interesting as those things may be. Rather, Trump is creating a court and legal landscape far more conservative than anything the United States has seen in the 21st century so far. What Trump has done to America’s legal system is everlasting, and its effects will persist over and above Trump and the Republican Party for decades to come.

The most famous case is that of Neil Gorsuch. Thanks to Republicans in House and Senate who defied precedent and eek on with slim constitutional arguments, former President Obama never got to fill the vacant spot on the Supreme Court. With Sen. Mitch McConnell at the helm, the GOP made history in the worst kind of way and cleared a path for a hyper-conservative, quasi-Scalia to frock up. As I’m sure they themselves would note, it’s going to shape Supreme Court decisions for a really long time — especially considering justices are appointed for life, and Gorsuch is currently the youngest on the bench. He can make or break travel bans, rule on Second Amendment cases, same-sex adoption and marriage cases, national abortion cases, religious freedom in America and so on.

But we don’t have to look as far as the Supreme Court to spot the change. The lower courts are turning redder and more conservative than ever before.

According to an article published by Time magazine, none of this is by accident, Rather, Trump’s White House has “nurtured the relationship between the president and conservative legal scholars.” Officials have appointed dozens of judges during Trump’s first 12 months in office, most of them outgoing Republicans, but they’ll soon be able to replace liberal judges with more conservative ones.

In fact, just this week, Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a person The New York Times dubbed “a liberal stalwart,” died at age 87. He sat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Since Republicans control every institution that oversees appointments, Trump can essentially pick anyone to fill the vacancy. And, just like that, a court that leaned dramatically liberal — that is, one that overturned the travel ban and upheld aid to sanctuary cities — will turn red.

The lower courts are extremely important. Judges can curb civil rights, expand policing and police power, restrict LGBTQ+ rights, limit abortion rights and rule in favor of abortion rights — and all of Trump’s nominees want to do just those things. Legal ideology aside, these nominees are overwhelming white, overwhelmingly male and, worst of all, overwhelmingly young. In other words, they have less experience, and they’re going to be around for a really long time making decisions consistent with their ideology.

The narrative that Trump has not accomplished anything in office is wrong. He’s transformed the courts entirely, and he will continue to do so until his term is up.

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