Feminists Must Think of the Courts When They Cast Their Ballots

Much is at risk in the age of Trump, from reproductive rights to equal pay to protections for survivors of sexual assault and those face employment discrimination. One way or another, these issues all find their way to the federal courts—and this week, the future of those courts is on the ballot.

Activists protested outside the Supreme Court after the Trump administration announced its Muslim Ban. Many of the issues of concern to feminists across the country will soon face courts at every level—and their fate lies in the decisions made in the midterms. (Ted Eytan / Creative Commons)

The marquee example is a recent one. The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was a painful setback for survivors of sexual abuse and put abortion rights in immediate danger—and with a razor-thin margin of victory for Kavanaugh in the Senate, it’s not hard to see how history could have taken a different course.

Two years ago, Republicans won close Senate races in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; had those races gone the other way, Kavanaugh might have been stopped. Instead, President Trump and a roster of aging white men in the Senate showed how indifferent and hostile they are to survivors of sexual abuse by confirming him to a lifetime position on the nation’s highest Court. Together, they coldly dismissed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s story of horror, insinuating that she was a liar and calling her “mixed-up.” During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings about her allegation that Kavanaugh attempted to rape her in high school, they refused to call key witnesses who were ready to speak. After reluctantly launching what turned out to be a sham FBI investigation into the claims, President Trump prevented the agency from interviewing many others.

Women would be justified in using our votes to send a message to the Senators who voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, nine of whom are up for re-election this November. But the Supreme Court is not the only court that should concern us. The Supreme Court hears fewer than a hundred cases a year; the federal circuit and district courts just below it hear hundreds more.

Who sits on these courts matters a great deal. It was federal judges who allowed women into the Virginia Military Institute and stopped universities from yanking funding from women’s sports teams. Courts hold the line against sexual violence and harassment and hold employers accountable for workplace discrimination and unfair treatment of working mothers and pregnant women.

Now, more than ever, the courts are a feminist issue. In our activism and at our polling places, we need to advocates for judges who will uphold our rights, not diminish them. We should vote not just in reaction to Kavanaugh, but in favor of candidates who will refuse to confirm anti-woman nominees for lower courts.

It is downright scary to see the kind of people that President Trump and his Senate allies have been pushing for lifetime jobs on the federal courts. That these are people who aspire to play a fundamental role in deciding whether women will have a right to choose what to do with our bodies and shape the trajectory of our lives is deeply disturbing.

One nominee compared abortion to slavery, and another tried to ban all abortions in Tennessee—even if necessary to protect the mother’s life or in cases of rape or incest. Another endorsed the view of an anti-abortion activist who claims that abortions cause breast cancer and that birth control pills make women “more likely to be the victim of violent assault and murder.” Others fought to let Hobby Lobby flout the law by denying contraceptive coverage to its employees. One appointee sued to prevent Title IX education protections from being applied to high school girls. Yet another argued that a girls’ basketball coach could be fired just for complaining that the boys’ team was being treated better.

Some of the most competitive Senate races this year could determine who casts the deciding vote the next time a powerful lifetime court seat is offered to an extremist. Voting with the courts in mind is a feminist imperative. Our bodies, our paychecks, our safety, our futures and our lives are at stake.

Nan Aron is President of the Alliance for Justice Action Campaign.

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