This the first of a two-part series on the impact of Justice Kennedy’s retirement and a new Trump appointee to the Supreme Court on African Americans and those within politically vulnerable communities.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s announcement that he will soon retire has left the nation reeling and the Black community unsure about the redress of previous decisions and the level of fairness related to race, gender and sexual orientation that comes with a new Trump appointee.
Having served 30 years on the highest court in the nation, the 81-year-old justice plans to step down by the end of July, leaving President Donald Trump to find a suitable replacement. Kennedy’s tenure included having both liberal and conservative stances on a number of monumental cases in recent history, such as Obergefell v. Hodges, which gives gay couples the right to marry, and Fisher v. University of Texas, in which he upheld affirmative action.
Kennedy also voted to strengthen abortion rights in Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt in 2016; however, he favored the conservative ruling in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Committee which gave corporations limitless power to spend money on political advertisements.
Many people fear the appointment of a more conservative justice will allow the Court to redress civil rights legislation which serves to protect the rights of African Americans and politically vulnerable populations.
Political scientist Wilmer Leon, host of Radio Sputnik’s “The Critical Hour” and Sirius XM’s “Inside the Issues,” said Trump’s replacement will definitely be conservative and young.
“Trump has made it very clear that he wants to select a young jurist because he wants the selection to be on the bench — in his words —for the next 40 to 50 years,” Leon said. “Trump wants to nominate people that don’t have a long judicial record to review, so they can pretty much go in front of the committee and say anything they want because they don’t have a track record that people can go back and review. I think age and temperament are the issues. Conservatives want to be sure their nominations have as long an opportunity to control the direction of this country as possible.”
Leon said that a perfect design of the Supreme Court would include nine justices — three left-leaning, three to the right, and three in the middle — which would provide what he termed a “theoretically balanced debate” on a particular issue.
However, civil rights icon and theologian Ruby Sales argues that lionizing Kennedy at the close of his tenure as a swing vote and a champion of human rights is revisionist history, pointing out that his record has always had White supremacist leanings.
“There is a context for the way he’s being described, and that context is the official story set over and against the people’s story,” Sayles said in a recent “Inside the Issues” radio interview with Leon. “What we know about Kennedy is that he is a right-wing culture warrior who sometimes voted in a direction that sometimes felt like it had something to do with our lives, but for the most part he held the center of white supremacist gravity.”
So what could be in store America with a newly appointed Trump justice?
George Washington University student Tyler Staton, 21, said African Americans should be worried about Kennedy’s retirement as she believes the next pick will be highly conservative. Staton said despite her concern, she holds out hope that with the upcoming midterm elections in November, the Democrats retake control of the Senate — which is granted the power of reviewing and approving Supreme Court appointees — and ensures the right candidate takes the seat.
“I think it’s down to how much the Democrats want to advocate for the things they are trying to change,” Staton said. “Within the first one to two years, people have realized the effects of what Trump said he was going to do. I think people are more cognizant that if things don’t change, more bad things will happen. With Kennedy retiring, I believe Trump is going to choose someone who leans more towards the right and that may negatively affect Black people in the long run.”
Others, like Vladimir Racine. 40, pointed to an April 4, 2018, article in The Washington Post that announced the lack of financial progress Blacks had made in the past 50 years as indicative of poor leadership — whether conservative, liberal, Black or White.
“African Americans face stark social challenges, so I do not see a difference in there being a conservative or liberal justice to replace Kennedy,” Racine told The Informer. “We keep doing the same things — electing the same people, not holding those in power accountable, or not voting at all, and believing somehow they will do the right thing. I don’t know what that means for Black Americans. Does it really matter?”
Racine’s frustration resounded often among Black Washingtonians who spoke with The Informer. In addition to feelings of helplessness in fighting a system they believe is stacked against them, many also spoke to a growing distrust of their elected officials and the appointments those leaders make into policy-making positions.