It’s easy to rattle off some of the top campaign issues of the 2016 race, largely because candidates talk about them every day. The economy, national security, the climate crisis, immigration, the future of health security, and access to a quality education will all dominate the public discourse for much of the next year and a half.
But over at Bloomberg Politics, Sahil Kapur reported over the weekend on a South Carolina event, where former Gov. Rick Perry (R) highlighted a central national issue that doesn’t generally get as much attention.
“Something I want you all to think about is that the next president of the United States, whoever that individual may be, could choose up to three, maybe even four members of the Supreme Court,” he said. “Now this isn’t about who’s going to be the president of the United States for just the next four years. This could be about individuals who have an impact on you, your children, and even our grandchildren. That’s the weight of what this election is really about.”“That, I will suggest to you, is the real question we need to be asking ourselves,” he continued. “What would those justices look like if, let’s be theoretical here and say, if it were Hillary Clinton versus Rick Perry? And if that won’t make you go work, if I do decide to get into the race, then I don’t know what will.”
Whatever one might think of Perry or his skills as a potential president, that’s actually an excellent summary of an underappreciated issue. ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser, whom I wouldn’t describe as a Perry proponent, said the Texas Republican made “last week’s single most incisive statement about the 2016 election.”
To appreciate why, consider a chart.
If we assume that the current court does not change for the remainder of the Obama presidency – and really, no one can even say that for sure – three justices will be at least 80 by Inauguration Day 2017. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 83. (In the chart, blue lines refer to justices appointed by Democratic presidents; red lines refer to justices appointed by Republican presidents.)
The significance of these statistics is important: as the Bloomberg Politics piece added, “The average retirement age for a U.S. Supreme Court justice is 78.7, a 2006 study in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy found.”
The day the next president takes office, three sitting justices will already be well past this average, while a fourth will be very close behind. (Justice Stephen Breyer will be 78.2 years old on the next Inauguration Day.)
Purely on institutional grounds, Perry is absolutely right – the makeup of the high court will likely give the next president a unique opportunity to shape much of American public life for a generation.