Unlike members of Congress and the president of the United States, the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court never have to face voters, but Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton wants voters to know that the future of the high court is on the ballot this fall.
Expounding on the stakes of the 2016 election, Clinton wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed published Friday that the country and the court face a "make-or-break moment." With the court sharply divided along ideological lines and three justices who will be at least 80 years old by Election Day, Clinton noted that the 45th president may well appoint multiple justices to the Court, potentially reshaping its ideological makeup for decades.
What's on the line: Given the politically charged cases that have come before the court in recent years — marriage equality, affirmative action, voting rights, environmental protection, health care reform and campaign finance, to name but a few — the court's future is certain to serve as a rallying cry for both the Democratic and Republican nominees as the election nears.
Clinton, for her part, vowed to appoint justices who would uphold civil rights gains for racial and sexual minorities and oppose the campaign finance regime wrought by the 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and unions to make unlimited contributions to independent groups supporting or opposing candidates for office.
"As president (and a lawyer and former law professor)," Clinton wrote, "I'll appoint justices who will protect the constitutional principles of liberty and equality for all, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or political viewpoint; make sure the scales of justice aren't tipped away from individuals toward corporations and special interests; and protect citizens' right to vote, rather than billionaires' right to buy elections."
Clinton's view of the ideal justice differs sharply from that proffered by Republican presidential candidates, a point she didn't let go unmentioned in the op-ed.
"Marco Rubio says he wants 'more Scalias' on the Court — justices who would rule against marriage equality and roll back a woman's right to choose," Clinton wrote. "Ted Cruz says his judges will be 'rock-ribbed conservatives.' Chris Christie says that if the court were filled with his type of judge, they would have ruled against the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality."
Highlighting upcoming cases on labor union membership dues, abortion regulations, the drawing of electoral maps, affirmative action in higher education, President Barack Obama's immigration actions and his clean energy regulations, Clinton said that "the cases on the court's docket this year go straight to the heart of the progressive agenda."
"After years of accusing liberals of judicial activism, conservatives are wholeheartedly relying on Republican-appointed judges to undo progressive achievements," Clinton wrote. "They're using radical legal strategies to accomplish through the courts what they've failed to do through legislation, like dismembering the Voting Rights Act or attacking unions. A Republican president would support those efforts. I will oppose them."
The Clinton strategy: Clinton's op-ed comes one day after she notched the first-ever presidential primary endorsement from Planned Parenthood. In announcing the endorsement, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said, "Everything Planned Parenthood has believed in and fought for over the past 100 years is on the ballot."
That includes abortion rights. The Supreme Court currently holds a slim five-to-four majority in favor of some level of abortion rights. Swing justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee and moderate conservative, voted to uphold the right to an abortion in a landmark 1992 case, but he has also supported abortion restrictions, as in a 2007 case on late-term abortions. Should Kennedy, who turns 80 in July, be replaced by a Republican president, the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling may be in jeopardy.
The next president may also appoint replacements for conservative Antonin Scalia, who turns 80 in March, and liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 82, and Stephen G. Breyer, 77. For liberals, replacing someone like Ginsburg, who's attained liberal icon status as the "Notorious RBG," with a Republican-appointed justice would mark a devastating blow to the progressive judicial project.
Expect Clinton to continue offering reminders of such scenarios, both in her primary battle against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and, should she secure the Democratic nod, in the general election. As Clinton seeks to fend off Sanders' spirited progressive challenge, she notably pointed to the future of the Supreme Court as the campaign pleads with Democrats to consider their candidates' general election viability.
"We need to recognize something that has received almost no attention in this election, which is that the next president of the United States will make between one and three appointments to the United States Supreme Court," former President Bill Clinton said in his first solo campaign appearance this week. "And I know who I want doing that."