The Media Today

Kennedy’s retirement sets up months of SCOTUS coverage

June 28, 2018

The reverberations from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s surprise decision to retire spread quickly across the media world. Twitter filled with dire predictions from liberal voices and celebration from those on the right. Cable networks rushed into breaking news mode, with Fox News’s Chris Wallace stating, “Without any question, this is the biggest moment of the Trump presidency.”

Kennedy’s retirement leaves the Court without its swing vote, setting up an opportunity for President Trump to tilt the balance in favor of conservatives for years to come. Kennedy, appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1987, generally sided with the right, but embraced liberal arguments on issues like abortion, gay rights, and the death penalty. In the wake of his announcement, much of the conversation focused on the future of Roe v. Wade.

“Abortion will be illegal in a significant portion of the united states in 18 months,” CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said just after news broke of Kennedy’s retirement. “Roe v. Wade is doomed, it is gone, because Donald Trump won the election.” On MSNBC, panelists expressed concerns about Trump nominating “a Robert Bork–like figure.”

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The conversation quickly turned to what’s expected to be a brutal confirmation battle for Trump’s nominee. “There are times to fight and this is one of them,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said Wednesday evening. “If the Democrats in the US Senate allow President Trump to pack the Supreme Court with a 5-4 majority for the next 30 years, it’s not something the progressive Democratic voter will soon forget.” Democrats, however, can’t stop a nomination on their own. They control only 49 seats in the Senate, and a simple majority is needed to confirm a justice. Appeals to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to follow the precedent he set two years ago by refusing to consider Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, during an election year have been laughed off by the GOP.

While the Court rules on any number of issues, coverage of potential nominees is likely to focus on one topic: abortion rights. During the final presidential debate of the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to overturn Roe v. Wade if given the opportunity to appoint multiple justices. Trump’s list of 25 potential nominees is comprised of judges who would almost certainly be to the right of Kennedy, leaving Chief Justice John Roberts as the Court’s nominal swing vote. A pro-life nominee would place intense pressure on Democratic senators in red states as well as pro-choice Republicans like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. Expect to see a lot of attention paid to the Senate’s small group of moderate figures.

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Trump loves the opportunity to create reality television style suspense around his decisions, so it’s reasonable to expect him to take a bit of time choosing Kennedy’s successor. But with a midterm election just over four months away, Republicans are eager to get the nomination process started. With abortion rights and the potential makeup of the court for a generation on the table, the stakes for that nomination are hard to overstate. As the calendar turns toward election season, the future of the Court will, and should be, one of the dominant media narratives.

Below, more on coverage of Kennedy’s decision and its implications.

  • Trump’s shortlist: Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports that judges in their 40s and 50s are at the top of Trump’s list of potential nominees. “Trump knows how much his base cares about the court. He believes that releasing his list of potential court picks during the campaign was a masterstroke, and helped him win,” Swan writes.
  • Midterm strategy: The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Anne Gearan write that both parties will use the SCOTUS vacancy to energize their bases in the run-up to the midterms. “The already-ferocious nomination battle is likely to clarify the choices for voters in Senate races across the country,” they write.
  • Look to the ballot box: The New York Times Editorial Board argues that Kennedy’s retirement “sends a stark message to the tens of millions of Americans who have long turned to the court for the vindication of many of their most cherished rights and protections: Look somewhere else.”

  • The NYDN take: Today’s New York Daily News front page got a lot of attention.


Other notable stories

  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of incumbent Representative Joe Crowley took many legacy outlets by surprise, but Politico’s Michael Calderone writes that left-leaning news organizations were on the race early. The Intercept, The Young Turks, Splinter, Mic, Elite Daily, and others all covered Ocasio-Cortez closely, providing a boost to her grassroots campaign. Meanwhile, The New York Times took heat for largely ignoring a political uprising in its own backyard.
  • For CJR, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer speaks with new LA Times Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine about life after Tronc and his plans for the paper. An optimistic Pearlstine told her that “the goal is for us to be perceived as a world-class journalistic enterprise, doing what makes the most sense for our current audience and the audience we aspire to serve.”
  • CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Oliver Darcy report that former Fox News executive Bill Shine has accepted a senior White House position, with the likely title of deputy chief of staff in charge of communications. Shine, a longtime Roger Ailes disciple, was ousted from the network as part of the fallout from sexual harassment charges at Fox. He was never accused of harassment, but was criticized for not doing more to address the issue.
  • For CJR, Roberto Lovato speaks with a 30-year-old mother from El Salvador who was imprisoned at a detention facility in 2014 and 2015. She says she’s glad the immigration issue is getting more attention, but criticizes the media for “still missing most of the story of what it’s really like. They’re talking about this like it’s new, as if what happened to us did not happen. You can’t cover the sun with one finger.”
  • USA Today is hosting a nationwide series of screenings of the The Wall, its documentary about President Trump’s proposed border wall that was part of a package that won a Pulitzer Prize.
  • The Associated Press’s David Bauder checks in with the new version of Today, six months after Matt Lauer’s firing. “You can sense the exhales in NBC corporate suites, where fear of the unknown was real,” Bauder writes.
  • The Daily Beast launched a membership program, offering early looks at feature stories, exclusive content, and—interestingly—the chance to be published by the site. The package costs $50 per year to initial subscribers.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.