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September 24, 2020

Democracy in crisis

Opinion

September 24, 2020

The United States continues to move with trepidation towards national elections on November 3, while the country continues to bounce from one crisis to the next.

Over 200,000 Americans are dead from Covid-19 and over 6.5 million have been infected. Tens of millions are unemployed and several universities had to move to online teaching only within a week of reopening as Covid cases spiked.

Messages from the Trump administration about the pandemic are confusing at best. He continues to contradict his own science experts on a daily basis. While the director of the Centers for Disease Control testified to Congress that wearing a mask is the best defence against the disease, Trump continues to hold indoor rallies with thousands, mostly unmasked attendees. He has managed to turn this healthcare issue into a matter of political ideology. (There have been fistfights in stores between those wearing masks and those refusing to do so).

Early voting has already started in some states. Recently a group of flag-waving Trump supporters tried to intimidate voters in Virginia.

In this volatile mix came the sad news of the passing away of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She had been on the court for 27 years and was an outspoken supporter of equal rights not only for women but for all marginalized communities.

The US Supreme Court has nine justices, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They are lifetime appointments and therefore of serious consequence to the implementation of laws in the country. When government branches are divided between the two political parties as they are now, many disagreements end up in the Supreme Court. Their decision becomes the law of the land and impacts wide ranging matters from civil rights, to voting rights, to right to health care and much, much more.

There has been a delicate balance between conservatives and liberals on this court for the past several decades with four conservatives and four liberals, and the chief justice who usually votes with the conservatives. Over the course of his first seven years in office, Barack Obama was able to fill two vacancies on the Court. When a third vacancy came up 10 months before the end of his term, Republican leadership in the Senate, who controlled the majority, refused to consider his nominee, arguing this lifetime position should not be filled so close to a presidential election. Consequently, the seat was left open for almost a full year until the election of Trump.

Justice Ginsburg, one of the most progressive justices on the court, has died just 45 days before the election. Donald Trump and Republicans in the Senate see an opportunity to put one more conservative on the court, seriously altering the balance in their favor. They have conveniently forgotten the norms they themselves established during President Obama's last year.

Within an hour of the death of Justice Ginsburg, Republican leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell had announced they would rapidly fill the vacancy. Trump is now expected to name a nominee soon. A big fight has erupted, with Democrats arguing the confirmation must wait till after the elections which are already underway.

Republicans have the power to push the appointment through if they are willing to ignore all norms of the process. Democrats are weighing their options. The outcome is likely to have a profound impact on all citizens. It will particularly affect women's rights, voting rights and civil rights of minorities and immigrants. US democracy has been under a dark cloud during most of Trump's term. Unfortunately, it is likely to get worse.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC. Website: www.sqshareef.com/blogs