On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as the President and Vice President of the United States of America, respectively. With them, are a Congressional Senate and House of Representatives with a majority of democrats. It is rare to see an executive and legislative branch aligned to the same party. However, even as both these branches move to undo what has largely been seen by the Decmocratic party as significant damage to American politics caused by the last four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, There is one obstacle that yet remains in their way: the overwhelmingly conservative judicial branch.
The judicial branch, specifically, the Supreme Court remains heavily conservative leaning with a 6-3 split. Because of this, any reversals made on Trump-era legislation, as well as new legislation are subject to scrutiny by the Supreme Court, which may rule against Democratic policies. As such, liberal leaning issues, such as LGBT rights, abortion, and health care hang in the balance. The Chief Justice, John Roberts, was often the deciding vote on cases with Republican-Democrat divide, often siding with the liberals on important cases like the LGBT reform for the military. However, Trump appointing 3 conservative judges to the Supreme Court, has polarised the bench to a 6-3 conservative majority. This is a significant departure from decades of the constitution of the bench being strategically balanced at 5-4 between conservatives and liberals. The largely evenly represented board had historically shown great prudence and equipoise in defining judgements; from matters on affirmative action and immigration to abortion.
Not only this, Trump’s appointments have also lowered the average age of the bench. In a governmental branch where the justices of the supreme court serve for life, this could indicate a time period of 30 – 40 years where conservative interpretations of the United States Constitution are upheld. The ramifications of these appointments will therefore be felt not only by Biden and Harris, but by Presidents and legislators for many years to come.
However, the Supreme Court’s influence is not the only part of the judiciary branch that has been significantly changed. With the appointment of nearly 200 federal judges in lower courts throughout the United States, Trump has made a palpable impact on interpretations of legality (as the judges will be implementing laws from their political perspectives: i.e conservative judges are more likely to vote uphold conservative laws and liberal policies and vice versa) which will have a great effect on the implementation of laws set by legislators over the next few decades.
The challenges that come with this, apart from the compromised comity of America’s highest court, is the alignment of the court with president-elect Joe Biden’s political aspirations for the country. Biden, who has been a long standing supporter of labour rights and stricter regulations, is now faced with a Supreme Court bench which is starkly pro-business. In his 2020 campaign, Biden proposed implementing withdrawing the tax cuts offered to the wealthy by Trump. He has also spoken strongly on matters of ownership of assault weapons by common Americans. On healthcare, he has campaigned to build on the scope of Obamacare to reduce the cost of primary health care.
Furthermore, the question of the masses does come up in times like these. Biden’s victory, though a victory was won by a margin. The election of 2020, if taken as a fair election, is reflective of the sentiment of the people of the USA; and a polarised view at that President-elect Joe Biden secured 306 electoral college votes as against Trump’s 232, representing a fair share of the American populace feeding into Trump’s extremist conservative narrative. Not only was this seen in public demonstrations since the election, but also in the chaotic riots that breached the United States capital in early January. Biden and Harris are now entrusted with the eminent task of uniting the divided populace, as well as to mend relationships outward with countries that Trump severed ties with during his term.
The USA’s legacy as a hegemonic power of the world has been in decline well before Trump took to office. With developing countries like China and India growing at exponential rates per annum, USA’s dominance as the economic behemoth of the world has been in question since Obama’s time. However, it is the U.S’ esteem of democracy, liberty and peace that have upheld since time immemorial that have now come into question. U.S’ participation in international peacekeeping efforts, through agencies and direct interventions in many cases, are now exposed to criticism given the growing unrest in their home grounds.
Biden, in his 2020 campaign, has been very vocal about the importance of the U.S’ position in international politics and his intentions to retain its reputation as a champion of rights, an anti-dictatorial state.
“The reason why we have been able to lead the world is not the example of our power, although we’re the most powerful nation in the world. It’s the power of our example.”
Scholars have argued that despite the unprecedented scale of change and divide brought to American politics by President Trump, history has shown examples of hope in situations far more severe and polarised. Despite Trump’s best efforts, the Supreme Court has maintained its autonomy in its rulings, often to the former’s disappointment.
On the 5th of February 2020, Chief Justice Roberts presided over the US Senate trial of Trump where the Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump on, “charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.” On June 18th 2020, Justice Roberts ruled in line with the liberals to, “reject Trump’s effort to roll back the Obama-era DACA program for undocumented immigrants who came to the US as minors.” And three months after Trump’s fourth and final nomination to the Supreme Court bench, on December 7th, 2020, the bench unanimously ruled against a Republican attempt to overturn Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania, thus showing that despite Trump’s blatant attempt to reconstitute the Supreme Court bench in his favour, he has failed to shake the autonomy and fairness of the judicial arm of the state in its decisions.
“We should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary, a key source of national unity and stability. But we should also remember that justice is not inevitable.”
A recent article in Bloomberg, authored by Sir Max Hastings draws upon the dark and devastating history of America, emphasizing upon the centrality of American values etched in liberty will always find a way to regain balance and stability for future generations. In his words, “we have watched the U.S living through wretched times. But it has known worse and bloodier…It is thus that I do not doubt its power, once again – using the word that through the ‘60s we heard sung a million times – to overcome.”
Ahaan Bagwe is a graduate student at Penn State University currently majoring in International Affairs, simultaneously pursuing bachelor’s degrees in International Politics and Security and Risk Analysis, minoring in Chinese, with specializations in National Security and Intelligence.
Shreya Hasurkar is a Research Associate at the Centre for Social and Behavior Change. She recently completed her undergraduate degree in Political Science from Ashoka University.