Commentary

Leo Pond: Fracture of national politics is affecting the federal court system

This commentary is by Leo R. Pond, a freshman at Rutland High School. He is from the town of Chittenden, where he sits on the town planning commission. He is on the National Campaigns Committee at the High School Democrats of America and was a 2020 campaign fellow for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s campaign in Massachusetts.

The fracture of the modern political system has caused the U.S. federal court system to become a new court for political games, and the retirement of Judge Peter Hall shows the effect it has on Vermont. 

In 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia passed away and, as is the procedure, then-President Obama appointed a judge to fill his place on the Supreme Court. After the Obama administration announced the appointment, it would have been the job of the Senate to confirm Justice Scalia’s replacement, but because the Senate at the time was controlled by a Republican majority, the majority decided it wouldn’t let the Obama administration fill the seat. 

To avoid having the Obama administration appoint any more judges, the Senate wouldn’t give any Obama-appointed judges hearings until President Trump took office and the appointments expired. 

When President Trump took office, he had multiple open court seats that he could appoint judges to, giving many courts an unfair originalist advantage because of the new appointments.

The actions that the Republican-controlled Senate took in 2016 — not to give any appointments a hearing — created a new hostility when the president appointed judges. Most of the judges former president Trump appointed to the courts faced hours of criticism from Democratic senators. 

The main issue with the fact that the courts have become a new source of political tension is that justice is rarely served when politics are involved. 

The court appointments of the Biden administration will undoubtedly come under intense criticism from Republican senators. In the past, court appointments would rarely be challenged by the opposite party. When the late Justice Antonin Scalia was confirmed, his vote was 98-0 and his former colleague, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also followed a similar path where she was confirmed 96-3. 

In more recent appointments, the justices were confirmed by a slim vote margin. When Justice Amy Barrett was confirmed, the vote was 52-48. 

Within recent history, the public view of federal court judges has also changed. Federal judges are no longer seen as fair and balanced interpreters of the U.S. Constitution; they’re seen more as unelected lawmakers who rule with little to no public opinion involved in their decision. 

The judge appointments of the Biden administration will also show the new partisan political changes in the federal courts. The new opening of the Vermont seat on the Second Circuit of Appeals that was previously filled by Judge Peter Hall will be one of the first appointments President Biden makes. Judge Hall’s replacement will “flip” the court to a majority appointed by Democratic presidents. 

President Biden’s court appointments will show a lot about how bipartisan the administration is willing to be, and if the administration will play into more political games.


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