I found out recently that 86 year-old national treasure Bill Moyers could finally no longer stand to sit idly by. A few months ago he started a podcast version of his great long-running PBS interview and reporting show. In March he spoke with Dahlia Lithwick, award-winning reporter on the Supreme Court. You can hear the whole interview here (or, if you’re pressed for time, more quickly read the whole transcript).
Donald Trump, a man with no particular political ideology, outside of a deep, lifelong commitment to the privileges of the wealthiest, is the perfect tool for his ultra-conservative and fervently Christian backers. He has no objection to picking judges off a list prepared by an extreme right/religiously conservative organization. Both of his Supreme Court picks came off the Federalist Society list of committed conservative ideologues. His lifetime appointments to the federal bench are all chosen for their loyalty to a conservative corporatist, “pro-life” worldview. Trump himself doesn’t care, he was for abortion rights before he was against them, but his wealthiest and most religious backers certainly care fervently. When it comes to his donors, Mr. Trump aims to please.
At the end of the discussion between Bill Moyers and Dahlia Lithwitck we hear this:
Bill Moyers: Dahlia, conservatives have long understood that elections every two and four years are as much about the courts as about the legislature and the executive branch. And they’ve made the appointment of judges, well, quite frankly perhaps the chief issue in their campaigns. That’s been a pretty smart strategy, hasn’t it?
Dahlia Lithwick: I’m glad you asked about this, because since the Meese revolution, there has been a concerted effort—
Bill Moyers: Ed Meese was the attorney general, for Ronald Reagan.
Dahlia Lithwick: This is a decades-long, very organized, very focused, very well-funded effort to win the courts and with an understanding that if you control the courts, almost nothing else mattered.
And what we’ve seen, if I can go back to the 2016 election, we went into that election with one vacancy. Antonin Scalia had died the February before the election. Mitch McConnell had held up the Merrick Garland confirmation, and so there was a vacancy on the court.
There was an 83-year-old, an 80-year-old, and a 79-year-old on the court that year. And with no disrespect intended to octogenarians, it might have been a good time for progressives to look at the court and say, “Holy cow. This is the most important issue going into this election.”
Donald Trump campaigned on the fact that he was going to change the court, only appoint people who would overturn Roe. There were people like Ted Cruz and John McCain who went into that election in November of 2016 pledging in their Senate races that if Hillary Clinton won in 2016 they would hold the Scalia seat open for four more years or eight more years. No one was going to be seated on their watch.
And on the other side, we had Democrats running for the Senate who had had a seat stolen under their noses and said nothing in their Senate races. And by a two-to-one margin, voters who prioritized the Supreme Court broke for Donald Trump. So that was entirely — sort of choice that voters made in 2016 that whatever their issues were, the court was not amongst them.
And as a consequence, we saw not just the two Supreme Court seats that Donald Trump has been able to fill with Gorsuch and with Kavanaugh. But we’ve now seen 191 federal judges seated in three years. That outpaces Obama’s record for seating judges in eight years. It is unprecedented for anybody to pack the courts the way Donald Trump has done it. And it is for exactly the reason you started with. It is because, for whatever reason, conservatives laser focus on the courts and progressives rank it number eight, nine, 10, or 11 in their priorities.