The recent conclusion of the United States Supreme Court term brought a flurry of rulings and reminders of the many ways judges shape our daily lives. The court ruled on issues of free speech, racial gerrymandering of congressional districts, and on standards for public education provided to children with disabilities.
Court observers were not surprised when the newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, proved every bit as conservative as predicted by his previous rulings and writings. Justice Gorsuch would have gone further than his colleagues in supporting the use of public funds to support religious institutions, would have heard a challenge to a California gun safety measure and would have allowed the president’s ban on travel from six predominantly Muslim nations to go into immediate and full effect.
Justice Gorsuch dissented when the court reversed an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that prevented married same-sex couples from automatically being listed as parents on their children’s birth certificates, even though Arkansas allows different-sex couples to do just that, including when they use assisted reproduction. The Supreme Court’s ruling simply affirmed its 2015 Obergefell decision allowing couples to marry nationwide, with the same “constellation of benefits” and responsibilities as other married couples.
Federal judges, once confirmed, serve for life, potentially impacting society for decades. That’s why it’s critical to have judges who are not only supremely qualified legally, but are also fair-minded, and able to apply the tenets of our Constitution to life as we live it in 21st century America — for all Americans.
In the coming days, the U.S. Senate will vote on whether to confirm John K. Bush and Damien Schiff to the federal bench. Neither man comes close to these standards, and through speeches, blogging and past legal activities, both have demonstrated hostility toward entire groups of people. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King should lead the votes against their confirmation and send the message that we all expect better in judicial nominations.
Bush has a long history of offensive actions and writings that exhibit stereotyped thinking and hostility toward women and LGBTQ Americans. He has urged the Supreme Court to deny equal opportunity for women at the Virginia Military Institute because of their supposed “different developmental needs.” Beyond equating access to abortion with slavery, he opposes constitutional privacy doctrine that allows us to make important personal decisions rather than the government. He used an anti-gay slur in a speech, and more recently criticized the State Department for changing government forms to accommodate gay and lesbian parents. We count on judges to know facts, but he has repeatedly peddled “birther” conspiracies about President Obama. He lacks the judgement, temperament and discretion we expect for judges.
Similarly, Schiff’s blogging and legal career demonstrate that he lacks judicially qualifying characteristics as well, epitomized by his reference to Supreme Court Justice Anthony
Kennedy as a “judicial prostitute.” His “attack first, facts later” approach had him criticizing an anti-bullying curriculum as “teaching gayness” when he had not even seen the curriculum. As a lawyer and blogger, his career has been devoted to undermining laws providing equal opportunity without regard to race, gender and sexual orientation. He has argued that Title IX, the 1970s-era law that has made girls’ sports a reality in our schools, should be limited to colleges. He, too, opposes respect for constitutional privacy protections that allow Americans to make important personal decisions. As to the environment, he has long opposed environmental protections, even calling Earth Day “a threat to liberty and property rights.”
These are but two of the 131 vacancies across the federal judicial system. It is time to send a message that we Americans want qualified judges who will give everyone a chance based on the facts and the law.
One of those vacancies is here in Maine, created when District Court Judge John A. Woodcock took senior status at the end of June. The solemn responsibility of suggesting candidates to the president, who in turn makes a nomination, falls to Sen. Collins.
A first principle in our nation is that we come before our government as equals. Any judicial candidate must be indifferent to wealth and power, uphold the rights of those who come before them based on legal principles and the realities of 21st century American life, and play the crucial role of checking and balancing the other government branches.
I am confident that Sen. Collins will put forward to the president candidates of the highest caliber, who are committed to democracy, the rule of law and fair treatment for all who come before them. Maine’s people deserve no less.
Mary L. Bonauto is a Portland resident and civil rights project director at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). In 2015, she successfully argued before the Supreme Court in the historic case Obergefell v. Hodges, establishing the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.