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Decade in review: The Supreme Court as an election issue

The Supreme Court is no stranger to political debate. Outside factors, like President Franklin Roosevelt’s proposal to add six justices to the bench in 1937, as well as the justices’ own actions, such as the unanimous 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, have often focused public attention on the court. This decade, the court itself was an election issue.

With Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat held open until after the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump released a list of potential Supreme Court nominees during the race. Exit polls suggested that voters’ concern about who would fill the vacancy played a decisive role in the outcome. Given the age of some of the current justices, it’s likely that judicial nominations will feature just as heavily in the 2020 election – indeed, they are already common talking points.

Beginning with the failed nomination of Robert Bork in 1987, Senate consideration of nominees to the Supreme Court has grown intensely partisan, even bitterly caustic. The confirmation hearing for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which devolved into a political battle, is the most recent and telling example. Both Trump and his potential Democratic opponents have used Kavanaugh’s confirmation to fire up the electorate.

Not only are voters increasingly aware of the impact of Supreme Court nominations, but they also appear open to structural reform of the court itself. Recent polls found over 40 percent support for adding seats to the court and nearly three-fourths in favor of term limits for the justices. Taking notice of the shift, some Democratic presidential candidates are now publicly considering court-reform proposals.

Recommended Citation: Kalvis Golde, Decade in review: The Supreme Court as an election issue, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 31, 2019, 11:00 AM),