Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: Somebody Please Remind the Press: The Court is at Stake in This Election

Posted at 9:41 pm, October 21st, 2008
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

The Washington Post’s Oct. 17 editorial endorsing Barack Obama was no shocker. Surprising, though, was its barely-breathing treatment of the Supreme Court as an issue. Justice John Paul Stevens is 88 and Justice Ruth B. Ginsberg 75, so who gets to name successors in the next four years is critical. The Post’s lengthy overall appraisal of the presidential choices devoted fewer than 30 tepid words to the judiciary:

“Given the court’s current precarious balance, we think Obama appointees could have a positive impact on issues from detention policy and executive power to privacy protections and civil rights.”

The New Yorker’s Oct. 13 “Talk of the Town” commentary dealt in depth with the election’s significance for the “third branch of government”; it hit hard, declaring a McCain court would scrap Roe vs. Wade, “affirmative action of all kinds would likely be outlawed….Efforts to expand executive power…would likely increase. Barriers between church and state would fall, executions would soar; legal checks on corporate power would wither — all with just one new conservative nominee on the Court.”

Then again, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial endorsing Obama, the first time in its history it backed a Democrat, did not even discuss the judiciary in its weighing of the candidates. Go figure.

An election is all about guessing how a candidate will perform in office. And on many issues, the president’s positions do not foretell the outcome. What a president espouses on health care, for instance, may bear little or no resemblance to what emerges from Congress. Supreme Court appointments are different. Only the president determines who gets this nod. The president may want to placate this or that constituency with the choice, but it is his call.

Do editorial endorsements matter? The question is hotly debated in editorial-writing circles, and some papers take to the sidelines during elections. The clinching argument for me is that if a paper expresses its opinion, say, on garbage collection, it should not opt for silence on something as consequential as a major election.

When a publication endorses in the presidential race, it owes readers, at a minimum, its candid appraisal of what the election means for the federal judiciary, especially the high court. These are lifetime appointments; President Bush leaves office this year, but the people he elevated to the Supreme Court will reflect his outlook well after he is gone.

Some of the country’s most important issues end up being framed as legal questions and many are decided by the Supreme Court. The press simply isn’t doing its job if it allows the election to pass without speaking out clearly, and in depth, about what it foretells for the courts.

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