I learned long ago, while working at the media watch group FAIR, to be wary of New York Times headlines.
Hearing news that President Obama has a shortlist of candidates to replace David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court, I dug up a front-page New York Times Week in Review piece written soon after Obama's inauguration about his possible impact on the Court. It was headlined: "To Nudge, Shift or Shove the Supreme Court Left."
I'd like to see Obama shift or shove the Court leftward. But after reading the article, I realized that it could just as easily have been headlined: "Will Obama Move Supreme Court Rightward?"
The centerpiece of the Times article was a fascinating study conducted by two University of Chicago law professors (one of whom is a conservative federal appeals judge) analyzing the judicial records of the 43 justices who've served on the Supreme Court since 1937. Four of the five most conservative judges of the last seven decades (Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, Alito) now sit on the Court. With Anthony Kennedy at number ten, five of the ten most rightwing judges are currently on the Court. The current majority, in other words, is almost a conservative all-star team.
By contrast, among the ten most liberal judges since 1937, the only sitting justice is Ruth Bader Ginsburg--she's number nine. Today's other three "liberal" justices (Stevens, Breyer, Souter) are in the top 15, but outside the top ten.
All in all, that's a rightwing-dominated Supreme Court.
The question facing Obama: Will he continue this trend of shifting the Court rightward?
Unfortunately, from what we've seen of Obama's general penchant for "moderate"- appointees who don't inflame Republicans, it's quite possible the Court will continue trending rightward--if liberals get replaced with less liberal appointees. After Souter, the seats Obama is most likely to fill are those of the two most liberal justices: Ginsburg and Stevens.
One of the most depressing aspects of the Obama era is how he has gotten away with so many centrist/corporatist appointees with such muted criticism from the left. That better change when it comes to crucial LIFE-LONG judicial appointees.
Whom Obama chooses for these posts is arguably more important than his choices of Biden or Gates or Hillary Clinton.
On this topic (like others), Obama speaks eloquently. . . out of both sides of his mouth. In revealing comments to the Detroit Free Press last October about his models for Supreme Court picks, Obama praised liberal lions Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan of the Warren Court as "real heroes of mine." Then he added: "But that doesn't necessarily mean that I think their judicial philosophy is appropriate for today."
After noting the Warren Court's powerful role in taking on racial segregation, Obama added a typically frustrating caveat: "I'm not sure you need that. In fact, I would be troubled if you had that same kind of activism in circumstances today. . . So when I think about the kinds of judges who are needed today, it goes back to the point I was making about common sense and pragmatism as opposed to ideology."
Obama is a smart guy. He knows that even the most "common-sense/pragmatic" nominee will bring (often-feigned) outrage from conservatives. Rightwing groups are gearing up to raise funds and build their mailing lists by pouncing on whomever he chooses. They'd yell even if he selected 79-year-old recently Republican Arlen Specter.
After Souter announced his retirement, rightwingers jumped on Obama's sensible statement that he would look for "that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles." That's code, claimed conservatives, for a liberal activist judge. And Obama is looking to replace Souter with a woman, person of color or both.
Rightwing theatrics aside, the reality is that unless Obama restrains his compulsion toward centrist consensus and appoints real progressives to replace not only Souter but Ginsburg and Stevens, our rightwing court may get even more conservative.