This week, Alabama Republicans lurched the United States closer to a Constitutional crisis with the passage of a bill banning abortion from the moment of conception, and punishing doctors who protect the lives of women with up to 99 years in prison.
A cabal of 25 Republican men drew the curtain on abortion rights in Alabama, where only three women sit in the state Senate. Their monstrosity of an abortion bill provides no exceptions for victims of rape or incest, creating a perverse scenario where a woman’s rapist could be out of jail in as little as two years, while a doctor who provides the same woman an abortion would die in prison.
The inarguable cruelty of Alabama’s abortion ban has the American Civil Liberties Union already preparing a legal challenge in federal court. The ACLU is far from alone, with dozens of civil rights organizations expressing their intent to seek an immediate injunction preventing enforcement of the bill.
Unfortunately, these legal challenges play directly into a broader Republican strategy with implications far beyond abortion rights:
Pack the federal courts. Get an abortion case on the docket. Let the most conservative Supreme Court in most Americans’ lifetimes overturn Roe v Wade.
This isn’t a new plan — in fact, a focus on packing the judiciary with far-right judges is the only unifying Republican belief that connects the Grand Old Party of the 1970s to today’s hollowed-out Trumpist shell. And no one has embraced the full cynicism and ugliness of court-packing more than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
For a sense of what the ACLU is up against when it files its case, take a look at Trump judicial nominee Wendy Vitter, whose confirmation McConnell has made a priority. In 2013, Vitter asserted that abortions cause breast cancer (they don’t). She also claimed contraceptives are poisonous (they aren’t).
Thanks to McConnell, Wendy Vitter is likely to be confirmed to the federal bench this week, where she will spend the rest of her working life judging cases that directly impact the lives and healthcare choices of American women.
Mitch McConnell is no fan of democracy. He understands that generational power rests not in winning the Congress or even the White House, but in filling the federal bench with hundreds of far-right judges empowered to change the fabric of American society.
McConnell’s gambit is also why, according to the National Review Judicial Nominations Tracker, the judicial confirmation process is “working” again. President Barack Obama had only confirmed 18 circuit court judges at this point in his first term. By comparison, with McConnell now steering Republican court nominees, President Trump has confirmed nearly 40 — and he has the power to fill over 150 more.
McConnell is willing to pursue this strategy of perpetual Republican power even if it means stripping away the Senate’s remaining democratic norms. At the first opportunity under Trump, McConnell invoked the “nuclear option,” reducing the number of votes required to confirm a Supreme Court nominee and giving us Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Just last week, McConnell overrode the “blue slip” process — where Senators from the home state of a judicial nominee must traditionally give their consent before a vote is taken. Normally, the blue slip process allows a Senator to object to an especially repugnant judicial nominee. In this case, the formality prevented a Republican judge from assuming power. Out the window it went.
All of this was deeply unpopular with American voters, but popular outrage is irrelevant in the larger Republican court-packing worldview. Sure, McConnell’s colleagues may sometimes lose re-election. Republicans may even lose the White House in 2020. But Donald Trump’s federal judges can obstruct the will of the people for decades to come.
For the women of Alabama now facing the loss of their bodily autonomy, the only redoubt against oppression is the strength of our federal court system. That system is under attack by a Republican Party willing to bend any and all rules of democratic tradition to achieve permanent power.
Now is not the time for Democrats to wilt under concerns about civility or calculations of short-term political risk. Senate Democrats must form a united front against the extremism of Donald Trump’s judicial nominees. The United States must never surrender the integrity of her federal judiciary to pirates.