Sen. Chuck Grassley and other top Iowa Republican leaders made it clear over the weekend what they view as their party’s signature accomplishment in recent years: a conservative takeover of the judiciary at all levels.
With the 15 minutes he had to speak at Sen. Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride on Saturday, Grassley spent about a third of his time talking about the Supreme Court and how its conservative justices are a victory.
“I think the outstanding thing this president has done is that after he has served eight years, there’s still going to be a legacy that we’re all going to benefit from,” Grassley said.
He praised the fact that the justices are conservatives who will interpret the Constitution according to original intent, a theory of legal interpretation that attempts to explain laws by using historical context and how language was understood at the time a law was written.
Federal judgeships are also lifetime appointments to the courts, so these judges generally have a long-term impact on federal law, a point that Grassley made in his address.
“This is the first in the presidency, that I know of — he’s told you the type of people he was going to put on the Supreme Court before he was ever elected,” Grassley said. “He has appointed two people, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, from that list and that’s going to make a difference not only through these eight years, but it’s going to make a difference for the next 30 or 40 years.”
One of those Supreme Court spots was left open for Trump to appoint thanks to Grassley’s unprecedented move to block former President Barack Obama from filling the seat left by Antonin Scalia.
But Gorsuch and Kavanaugh aren’t the only ones. Trump has also appointed judges to the lower federal courts that cases first encounter on their way to the Supreme Court. In his speech, Grassley put the number at 104.
“Even more importantly … 41 of them are presidential appointees, putting strict constructionists on the Circuit Court of Appeals … one-fourth of all the judges on the Circuit Court of Appeals have been appointed by this president,” he said.
Over the past couple of decades, Republicans have paid particular attention to the courts and the people appointed to them.
Two big players in these efforts have been the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that advocates for public policy, and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy, a conservative nonprofit seeking to reform the legal system so it favors an originalist interpretation of laws.
Both organizations have proposed nominees for positions in the administration and on different levels of federal courts.
In 2016, after Justice Antonin Scalia died, the Heritage Foundation compiled and published a list of potential replacement judges. Kavanaugh among them.
Progressives have a few counterparts, but none with the same level of influence.
The Alliance for Justice, a legal policy coalition made up of over 100 organizations and founded in 1979, was instrumental in defeating Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s pick for a Supreme Court seat.
The American Constitution Society for Law and Progress has a similar set-up as the Federalist Society with student and lawyer chapters active across the country. The organization was started in 2001 and it was founded because “the law should be a force to improve the lives of all people.”
Demand Justice was started in 2018 and campaigned against the shortlist of judges Trump considered, including Kavanaugh. The group lobbied specifically against Kavanaugh when he was announced as the appointee.
And the court has only become more important to Democrats now, especially as cases concerning issues like abortion and gerrymandering gain national attention.
A few presidential candidates, like Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, have mentioned ideas for addressing or expanding the judiciary, but Republicans have decades of infrastructure and strategy invested in the courts. And those efforts have been paying off.
by Nikoel Hytrek