Democrats Let in Right-Wing Supreme Court Justice — Fight or Flight?


Even with Bush’s approval ratings sinking to an all-time low, the majority of Americans opposing the Iraq war, and numerous scandals exposing the corruption of his administration and the Republican party, Bush has succeeded in getting another extreme conservative onto the Supreme Court.

Nicknamed “Scalito” for his similarities to extreme conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito has a clear record of trying to restrict abortion rights, civil liberties, environmental protections, and workers’ rights. For example:

  • In a 1985 job application statement, Alito said he was “particularly proud of my contributions in recent cases in which the government has argued in the Supreme Court … that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.” (NPR, 11/30/05)
  • In 1991, Alito upheld as constitutional a Pennsylvania law that required women to inform their husbands before they sought an abortion, which was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court.
  • In several cases regarding gender and racial discrimination in the workplace, Alito argued for standards of evidence that would make it significantly more difficult for discrimination victims to prove their cases or even bring them to trial.

Opposing Bush’s Agenda?
With such a conservative record, it is easy to see why the religious right is so excited about Alito’s appointment. It pushes the Supreme Court even further to the right, and increases the possibility of future attacks on abortion and other rights.

But key to Alito being allowed onto the Supreme Court was the pathetic role played by the Democratic Party.

It is true most Democrats voted against Alito, but that was merely a symbolic vote with no power behind it since they knew they didn’t have a majority. The actual decision was whether or not to filibuster – a method of blocking appointments or laws by not allowing them to be voted on.

Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, but 60 votes are needed to prevent a filibuster. 42 Senators voted against Alito in the symbolic vote, but only 25 Democrats were willing to filibuster and actually block Alito (and many only voted for this as a last minute face saving maneuver to help their upcoming election campaigns).

This follows the vote by half the Senate Democrats this past summer to confirm Bush’s other right-wing Supreme Court nominee, John Roberts. Further, they have rolled over and supported the vast majority of Bush’s right-wing nominees to federal courts, not to mention their support of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, the Patriot Act, and the Iraq war.

Despite rhetorical criticisms of Bush, the Democrats have proven themselves to be totally ineffective in opposing Bush’s right-wing agenda. This is no accident. It flows from the right-wing outlook of the Democratic Party leadership, which believes they lost the last two presidential elections because they were “too liberal” on social issues such as abortion rights. Yet, the fact remains a large majority of Americans oppose Bush’s agenda.

This was clearly shown by the 1.15 million people who demonstrated on April 25, 2004 in support of abortion rights. A majority opposed Bush’s stance on the Schiavo case, and a recent anti-abortion referendum in California, supported by Governor Schwarzenegger, was voted down.

If there had been a widespread campaign to educate workers and the oppressed about the reactionary policies Alito advocates and how they represent a serious threat to our interests, a filibuster would have been widely supported. In fact, polls indicated that when told Alito wanted to overturn the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, 70% of people said he should be rejected by the Senate.

But instead of mounting a serious public campaign totally rejecting Alito from the beginning and exposing his real record, the Democrats equivocated and aimed to defeat Alito by legal arguments at the Senate hearings. This played right into Bush’s strategy, which was to obscure Alito’s record because they understood if the public knew Alito’s position he would face widespread opposition.

A true opposition party in Congress – one that genuinely stood for reproductive rights, workers’ rights, civil liberties, and environmental protections – would not only conduct a filibuster, but would use its resources and access to the media to expose the threat represented by Alito and mobilize popular opposition by linking Alito’s nomination with Bush’s big-business agenda.

However, the leadership of the Democratic Party and their corporate backers are completely opposed to any serious mobilization from below, even for the limited defense of democratic rights. As part of the ruling class, they fear such struggles could develop into a broader challenge to their political and economic system.

Mass Struggle Key
Historically, victories for women’s rights were not handed down by enlightened judges or politicians, but were won in spite of them. Women had to fight hard for these gains by building independent mass movements and large-scale protests.

The massive and militant women’s movement is what brought about Roe v. Wade, which occurred under a Republican president (Nixon) with the majority of Court justices appointed by Republican presidents.

In 1989 and 1992, demonstrations of hundreds of thousands successfully prevented the Supreme Court from overturning Roe v. Wade. Faced with powerful protests, they knew criminalizing abortion would lead to a massive backlash and undermine the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, the main women’s organizations today have a liberal “work within the system” strategy and are fundamentally tied to the Democratic Party. This is why they refused to call for any mass demonstrations to block Alito’s confirmation, and focused instead on lobbying.

The confirmation of Alito and Roberts has shifted the Supreme Court even more to the right, which will likely step up attacks on democratic rights, workers’ rights, and abortion rights in the future. Also, the possible retirement of Judge Stevens, a more liberal member of the Court, could set the stage for another nomination fight. But we can win these battles if we learn the lessons of the past and take action.

We can defeat Bush’s agenda by explaining that his version of “family values” means sending your family members to die in Iraq and making you work for Wal-Mart wages with no healthcare or pensions, while the rich rake in billions of dollars in profits.

But we shouldn’t have any trust in the Democratic Party either, which has proven to be unwilling to defend our rights and interests. Our movements need to break with the Democrats and work to build a new mass party for the millions, not the millionaires – one that bases itself on the rights of women and working people, and opposes the religious right and big business in action, not just in words.