Recently, in an effort to make himself look Presidential, the presumptive Republican nominee put out a list of potential Supreme Court nominees. Meanwhile, Republican Senators continue to abdicate their responsibility by failing to hold hearings and a vote on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, a well respected moderate, to fill the empty seat on the Supreme Court. While that seat remains empty, the Supreme Court continues to flounder with numerous 4-4 ties, recently sending a case back to the lower court for further consideration to avoid yet another tie.
Perhaps the most lasting Presidential impact is the power to nominate Supreme Court justices. Since these are lifetime appointments, the average tenure of a Supreme Court Justice is 16 years, or twice as long as the maximum amount of time a President can serve. We have recently seen the powerful impact of the Supreme Court on our society as it legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
The Supreme Court’s impact on our society depends on who is on the Court. In 1896, the Court established the concept of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1954, the Supreme Court ended that hateful racist legacy in Brown v. Board of Education.
During the Roosevelt era, the same Court that upheld much of the New Deal, also upheld the detention of Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War 2, one of the most shameful acts of our nation.
As I reviewed the presumptive Republican nominee’s list of possible Supreme Court nominees should he be elected, I noted that the name of a judge whom I have appeared before and followed her career closely. Diane Sykes, is a former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, who left her post to accept a seat on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. While she is well known for her ultra-conservative opinions upholding voter ID, and restricting employees’ access to birth control, what concerns me as an attorney is her complete disdain for her fellow judicial colleagues as well as the attorneys who practice before her.
When Judge Sykes accepted her current appointment to the Seventh Circuit, it should have come as no surprise that then Governor of Wisconsin, Jim Doyle, would appoint a very different Justice to replace her, and indeed he did, when he appointed the Hon. Louis Butler, whom I have known for many years and for whom I have a great deal of respect. Yet, in utter disregard for the fact that she created the opening for Butler’s appointment, she publicly criticized the Wisconsin Supreme Court after her departure in such an outlandish manner that it provoked a thoughtful law review article from federal district court Judge Lynn Adelman.
In 2013, Judge Sykes joined Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when they gave speeches at the arch-conservative Federalist society’s fundraising dinner provoking an ethics complaint from a member of Congress, Common Cause and the Alliance for Justice.
In late 2011, I appeared before her when she sat on the Seventh Circuit panel reviewing the appeal by Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) of our special education class action which we had won in federal district court, thereafter settling with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, in a comprehensive manner that was working to make dramatic improvements in MPS. What I witnessed from Judge Sykes was a level of disrespect for her colleagues (literally eye-rolling at the well respected Judge Rovner’s questions) and my co-counsel (chastising her repeatedly without cause), that I knew that if she wrote the decision, we would lose. Of course, as soon as we received the decision and I saw it was authored by Judge Sykes, I knew before reading it that we had lost. Not surprisingly, Judge Rovner dissented.
So, when you cast your vote in November, remember that the next President will likely reshape the Supreme Court with as many as 4 nominations, which will shape our nation’s legal environment, including its civil rights for decades to come. It will make a difference.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.