High Court's Rulings Affect Your Daily Life


By:  Senator Patrick Leahy
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Justice John Paul Stevens has announced his retirement from the Supreme Court of the United States. The process to appoint a new justice to succeed him is just beginning. Now more than ever, Americans should take notice of how the Supreme Court affects us all.

Any American who thinks the Supreme Court doesn't matter to them should consider a few questions: Are you over the age of 50? Are you a woman who works? Do you own a small business? Do you care about taxpayer dollars being wasted on fraud? Do you care about protecting the environment? Are you a consumer? A bargain hunter? A voter? Most Americans answer "yes" to one or many of these --- and have been affected by recent Supreme court decisions.

No one will dispute that the next Supreme Court nominee must be well qualified. They must, of course, be at the top of the legal profession. I hope the president will also look beyond the Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals. Every sitting Supreme Court justice has come from the ranks of the appellate bench. A nominee with a varied background would be a welcome addition.

The nation's highest court gets our attention when its decisions are about divisive social issues. But the reality is that every year the court's decisions reach into the daily lives of hardworking Americans. It has recently issued controversial opinions making it easier for companies to discriminate against workers based on their age or gender. It has made it more difficult for victims of assault and harassment to have their day in court. The court has made it more difficult to hold companies accountable for defrauding taxpayers and consumers. It has overturned time-honored laws and precedent to permit manufacturers to demand that retailers set higher prices for consumers. And recently, it dramatically boosted the role that corporations can play in our elections.

In all of these cases just five justices joined together to affect the lives and the very livelihoods of millions of Americans. The American people need to trust that their courts will uphold their constitutional rights and freedoms, not play favorites. Just five justices decided to give immunity to employers who covertly discriminate against their workers. In another workplace discrimination case last year, just five justices decided to make it more difficult to prove age discrimination, adopting a standard that the Supreme Court had itself rejected in a prior case, and that Congress had rejected more than 15 years earlier. A few years ago, just five justices gave Exxon Mobil a $2 billion windfall by reading into the Constitution a protection for corporations that simply does not exist. Most recently, five justices gave another victory to Wall Street at the expense of Main Street America, overturning their own precedent to grant corporations the same power as any individual citizen to influence elections.

The Supreme Court is currently in the process of deciding whether several laws passed to protect taxpayers, investors and consumers against fraud and corruption should be overturned. These are crucial decisions that will affect the lives of hardworking Americans. And the next justice will play an important role in how future cases like these are decided.

Members of the Supreme Court are sworn to uphold the constitutional protections and liberties of every American. The Constitution begins with the words, "We the People," and those three words demonstrate that above all else, we are a nation made up of people working together toward a common purpose. I would like to see a nominee who will be faithful to the Constitution and its storied history. The next justice should be someone who understands and appreciates the real world impact of the Supreme Court's decisions on hardworking Americans. I would also like to see a nominee who reflects Justice Stevens' reverence for the Supreme Court as an institution.

President Barack Obama has continued his long-standing practice of reaching out to both sides of the aisle to discuss judicial nominations. I expect the president to nominate a well-qualified person, and I expect all senators to fulfill their constitutional responsibility of "advise and consent." Just 100 senators act on behalf of more than 300 million Americans when they cast their votes to confirm a Supreme Court justice. The stakes for all Americans at the nation's highest court could not be higher.

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Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.