January 14, 2011

Advice to New RNC Chair on Civility & Judges

Statement of CFJ Executive Director Curt Levey:

The Committee for Justice congratulates new RNC Chairman Reince Priebus on his election today and looks forward to his tenure as we approach the critical 2012 elections. Priebus will be getting plenty of advice from all quarters, so we limit our advice to these two points. We urge Chairman Priebus 1) to resist allowing political civility in the wake of the Arizona shootings to be defined in a one-sided manner, and 2) to make judicial nominations and the fight against judicial activism high-priority issues during the next two years.

While we welcome the possibility of increased political civility in the coming months, we also see the danger that the definition of “civility” will be one-sided. If it is up to many in the mainstream media, civility will be defined as less criticism of President Obama, his nominees and ObamaCare, as well as diminished advocacy for Second Amendment rights and border security. The definition will not include any abatement in the incessantly repeated charges that Republicans, conservatives and tea party members are racist, violent, homophobic, warmongering, stupid, greedy and otherwise lacking in compassion.

We urge Chairman Priebus to do his part in setting a positive tone for the political debate, while also ensuring that Republicans continue to fight hard for what they believe in and do not allow themselves to be put on the defensive by self-serving definitions of civility.

Turning to the judges issue, the RNC has been helpful but not always energetic about the issue over the last decade. The judges issue – nominations and liberal judicial activism – was one of the keys to GOP electoral success in the election cycles of 2000, 2002 and 2004, and the RNC was a key player. As Karl Rove and independent analysts have explained:
“There's no doubt in my mind that we won races all throughout the country [on the judges issue].” – Karl Rove (2004)

“[The judges issue] was one of Bush's best issues in the campaigns of 2000 and 2004” – Larry Sabato, University of Virginia (2006)
However, in the 2006 and 2008 cycles, the RNC showed less interest in judges and the diminished role of the issue was one of the many factors that contributed to the GOP’s big electoral losses. To the credit of outgoing Chairman Michael Steele, the RNC showed renewed interest in the issue during his tenure.

With the 2012 presidential election approaching, it is critical that Chairman Priebus elevate the judges issue to the level that helped elect and re-elect George W. Bush. Voters are keenly aware that a president’s appointment of Supreme Court and lower federal court judges is one of his most important powers and that it shapes the judiciary long after he has left office. On Election Day 2008, 75% of voters nationwide said that Supreme Court appointments were a factor in their vote for president, and 53% said it was an important factor (CNN).

An even more recent example of the power of the judges issue to motivate voters comes from Iowa, where voters fired three of the state’s Supreme Court Justices in November. Judicial retention elections are almost always rubber stamps. But Iowa voters were angry that, in a defiant act of judicial activism, the Iowa Supreme Court created a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in 2009. Nationwide, Americans believe by an almost 2-to-1 margin that judicial activism “seems to have reached a crisis,” according to a survey by the liberal American Bar Association (4 ABA Journal eReport 40).