Three years after Donald Trump won the presidency partly by making judicial nominations a centerpiece of his candidacy, liberal advocacy groups are struggling to get 2020 Democratic hopefuls to stress the importance of the third branch of government on the campaign trail.
“Our mission is to never repeat what happened in 2016 again,” says Brian Fallon, former press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and now the director of the progressive advocacy group Demand Justice.
Progressive groups that focus on the courts say the issue resonates with Democratic voters more than ever. During the Trump presidency, his administration has confirmed nearly 150 federal judges, including two Supreme Court confirmations—one bitterly contested, the other seat left open by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to consider a nomination by President Obama—that cemented a conservative majority on the nation’s highest court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 86, was treated for cancer this summer, and polling data conducted before the 2018 elections suggests the Supreme Court may have animated Democratic voters more than Republicans in the midterms.
Yet it’s been an uphill battle for the progressive judicial groups pressing candidates to talk about the courts. In five hours of debate between 2020 Democratic candidates in July, for example, judicial nominations weren’t brought up once. (At the debate in June, moderator Rachel Maddow asked a question about abortion rights at the Supreme Court, but not specifically about judicial nominations.) No Democratic candidate has released a list of judges they would consider nominating to the Supreme Court the way Trump did in 2016.
“They clearly need to step up,” says Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice Action Campaign. “Too often the Democrats have ceded to the right the federal courts, allowing them to energize their base. Judges make decisions that affect every aspect of our life, and by ignoring this topic, they do so at their peril, because Americans do care.”
Aron’s group is among several on the left urging Democratic presidents to talk about the importance of judges on the trail. Alliance for Justice Action Campaign is preparing talking points on Trump’s judicial nominees and reports on decisions made by the judges the Trump administration has confirmed. People for the American Way has launched a campaign called Vote the Courts 2020 that plans to partner with local organizations to make sure questions about the judiciary are raised at candidate town halls, and is working to organize a candidate forum focused on the courts. Demand Justice is having local organizers in Iowa and New Hampshire ask questions about judges at candidate events while filming the answers, and demanding that the next Democratic president refuse to appoint any former corporate lawyers to the bench.