The Obama Administration has been slow to fill federal judicial vacancies.  This may be in keeping with the President’s view that social change should occur through the democratic process.  But he should bear in mind that the long-term fate of social change often rests in the courts, which can step on – or ratify – the work of political movements.

The New York Times reported this weekend on the Obama Administration’s lethargic rate of judicial nominations.  In addition, key personnel in the White House counsel’s office responsible for such appointments are departing.  And the Senate has yet to confirm Christopher Schroeder, the nominee for the head of the Office of Legal Policy, which also bears a large part of the burden of vetting judicial nominees.

One suspects that among the many issues this Administration must juggle, the judiciary is not a top priority.  The Administration’s response to criticism about the pace of judicial appointments is that it is focusing on the confirmation rate, not the appointment rate.  But it is no secret the President places his higher hopes on politics and the power of democratic change, rather than the sort of legal liberalism of the Warren Court years.

Still, the President would be wise to recognize that courts and social movements have a symbiotic relationship. To state the obvious, judges can use their power of judicial review, and their role as statutory interpreters, to wreck havoc with the handiwork of politics.  Consider, for example, what the Supreme Court has done to the entire Guantanamo policy.

More important still, courts can ratify the work of political movements.  The New Deal’s shift to national control of the economy took lasting hold because judges changed their entire interpretive approach to accommodate it.  When judges buy into political change, such change becomes part of the very tissue of the law.  In this way, political accomplishments persist long after their proponents have departed their elective offices.

When a President’s agenda is primarily domestic, as is Barack Obama’s, judicial allies are essential.  Be it health care or the regulation of financial institutions, these regulatory changes ultimately will depend upon judges for their interpretation and implementation.  A hostile judiciary can tear a regulatory regime to pieces; a favorable one can enshrine it.

Simply put, it is not an either-or proposition:  judicial or political change.  The two work in tandem.  It’s both fine and appropriate to focus on the political.  That’s where one’s legacy is made.  But whether that legacy endures often depends, in the final analysis, on the courts.

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