During a speech at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Hillary Clinton urged voters to put the Supreme Court at the front of their minds as they consider their choice for president in 2016. She discussed how crucial it is that Senate Republicans not be allowed to succeed in refusing to consider the president’s nominee for the court’s current vacancy, and called on Senator Chuck Grassley, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to do his job and commit to giving Judge Garland a hearing. Hillary also said that Americans should be very concerned about the kind of nominee that a President Trump might put forward, and pointed out that a Trump nominee would seek to roll back our rights, further empower corporations, and undo so much of the progress we’ve achieved.
Well, thank you all very much. Thank you. Thank you and please, please be seated.
I am delighted to be back at this beautiful school, in this wonderful city and to have a chance to talk with all of you. I want to recognize former Governor Doyle. Thank you so much for being here.
Somebody asked me, “So, why are you going to Madison?”
I said, “Why wouldn’t I? I love going to Madison. I’ve been to Madison quite a few times.”
“Well, I mean, it’s a place where your opponent is very competitive.”
I said, “Yeah that’s true, but I’m here because, not only do I want to compete for every vote, I respect the people of Madison and Dane County.”
I want a chance to talk with you and I want you to know where I am coming from with respect to one of the most important issues facing our country. As someone who’s been fighting for progressive causes her whole life. I think it’s important that we take a broad view about what’s at stake in this election.
I’ve been making the case in this campaign that we’re not a single-issue country. Our next president has to be able to break down all the barriers that are holding us back, not just some of them.
And there are so many challenges we need to take on that don’t always get the attention they deserve on the campaign trail.
So today I’m going to talk about one of those challenges—something that matters a great deal to our future, to your future, the future of our country, and that is the Supreme Court.
Stop and think about it—and how many law students are here? Do we have some? Law students are here, so you think about this.
But if you do stop and think this, the court shapes virtually every aspect of life in the United States—from whether you can marry the person you love, to whether you can get healthcare, to whether your classmates can carry guns around this campus.
A lot of Americans are concerned about money in politics, and rightly so. It’s a serious problem that we have to address.
But Supreme Court justices are appointed for life. They’re not making decisions based on campaign contributions; they’re making them based on legal philosophy—and in some cases, ideology.
And for a long time now, the ideological bent of the court has led our country in the wrong direction, especially when it comes to stacking the deck in favor of the already wealthy and powerful.
If we’re serious about fighting for progressive causes, we need to focus on the court: who sits on it, how we choose them, and how much we let politics—partisan politics—dominate that process.
And I can’t think of a better place for this discussion than right here in Madison, because these decisions will affect you.
Before I was a senator from New York or a secretary of state, and even before I was a wife or mother, for that matter—I was a lawyer.
I was drawn to the law for the same reason a lot of young people are: I put my faith in justice and fairness. And I saw the profound impact that our justice system has on people’s lives, for better or for worse. And I wanted to help make it for the better.
So when I was in law school I volunteered for the New Haven legal aid association. After I graduated, I put my legal education to work at the Children’s Defense Fund. I ran the legal aid clinic at the University of Arkansas Law School where I taught, supervising students providing legal assistance to prison inmates and poor families.
And when President Carter appointed me to the Legal Services Corporation, which is the largest single provider of civil legal aid in America, it was one of the greatest honors of my life.
And we fought hard to convince Congress that using the law to help poor families was a just and necessary cause. And we won that fight. We hired an army of lawyers to work on behalf of more than a million poor clients across the country—helping families avoid eviction, fight discrimination, receive their earned federal benefits, and so much more.
But I also learned, when the administration changed, and President Carter went out, and President Reagan went in, that you couldn’t ever rest in the fight for justice and fairness. And we kept fighting. And thankfully we had increased legal services before that time because it’s been pretty much static ever since.
Because of these experiences, I come to the issue of the Supreme Court not just as a former senator who took my constitutional responsibility to “advise and consent” seriously, but also as a lawyer who spent years fighting for people who weren’t getting a fair deal in our system.
And I carry all these experiences with me—all those clients and all those cases—every single day.
So today, I want to share some of my thoughts on the Supreme Court, and then I would love to hear from you.
We start with that basic premise that I already stated: The court matters.
At its best, the court is a place where the least powerful voices in our society are heard and protected—whether they be African Americans trying to vote or people getting an education in the era of segregated schools and poll taxes, or women trying to make our own health decisions in the face of humiliating laws that would strip that right away.
Now this may be hard for you today in 2016 to really believe, but I was in high school. The Supreme Court decided a case called Griswold v. Connecticut. That case recognized that women have the right to make the personal choice of whether to use birth control. Before that in some places in our country like Connecticut, it could be a criminal offense.
So that case left a powerful impression on me. Along with all the civil rights cases from the 1950s forward, I saw the court as a place where wrongs were righted, and where everyday folks could stand on equal footing with the most powerful people in the land.
In recent years, the court has made a lot of high-profile decisions—some that uphold this progressive tradition, and some that tarnish it. It effectively declared George W. Bush president. It cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act. It overturned commonsense laws addressing gun violence, and said that certain employers get to decide whether their female workers can access free birth control under the Affordable Care Act.
But it also made same-sex marriage legal nationwide, preserved the Affordable Care Act—not once, but twice—and ensured equal access to education for women.
The death of Justice Scalia marked the end of an era.
Now as you know, there’s a fight over whether President Obama should nominate a replacement, as the Constitution requires. And that fight is revealing the worst of our politics—the same obstructionism that we’ve seen from Republicans since the beginning of the Obama Administration, the same disregard for the rule of the law that’s given rise to the extremist candidacies of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
It’s corroding our democracy, and it has to stop.
For those of you who aren’t following the saga, the story is pretty straightforward: President Obama has done his job and nominated Merrick Garland, one of the most respected judges in the country, to become the ninth justice. Democrats admire him. Republicans do, too. In fact, a few years ago, when another seat was open on the court, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah—who’s not exactly a liberal—said that if the president named Judge Garland, there was “no question” that he’d be confirmed. In fact Senator Hatch called the judge a “consensus nominee.”
Now normally, this is when the Senate would do its job—hold hearings, consider the nomination, call for a vote.
But Republicans say they won’t. They won’t even hold a hearing. It doesn’t matter how qualified the president’s nominee is, or what the Constitution says, or what our country needs.
This is their job! But they refuse to do it.
Senator Chuck Grassley, the head of the judiciary committee, could hold a hearing tomorrow if he wanted. But he says we should wait for a new president because, and I quote, “the American people shouldn’t be denied a voice.”
Well, as one of the more than 65 million Americans who voted to re-elect Barack Obama, I’d say my voice is being ignored right now because of their obstructionism.
We chose a president. We chose him twice. And now Republicans in the Senate are acting like our votes didn’t count, and that President Obama is not still our nation’s leader. And I’ll tell you, those are not high-minded principles—they are low-minded politics.
And today, I’m adding my voice to the chorus asking Senator Grassley to step up and do his job. He should hold a hearing—and he should schedule it as soon as the Senate returns from recess.
But let’s keep in mind—this battle is bigger than just one empty seat on the court.
By Election Day, two justices will be more than 80 years old—past the court’s average retirement age. The next president could end up nominating multiple justices.
That means whoever America elects this fall will help determine the future of the court for decades to come.
Just look at the court’s docket, the cases that it’s hearing this term alone.
The court is reviewing how public sector unions collect the fees they use to do their work. The economic security of millions of teachers, social workers and first responders is at stake. This is something the people of Wisconsin know all too well, because your governor has repeatedly attacked and bullied public sector unions, and working families have paid the price. I think that’s wrong, and it should stop.
The court is reviewing a Texas law imposing unnecessary, expensive requirements on doctors who perform abortions. If that law is allowed to stand, there will only be 10 or so health centers left where women can get safe, legal abortions in the whole state of Texas, a state with about 5.4 million women of reproductive age. So it will effectively end the legal right to choose for millions of women.
The court is also reviewing whether Texas should have to exclude non-voters when drawing its electoral map. That would leave out, among others, legal residents, people with felony convictions and children. The fair representation of everyone in our society—including 75 million children—hangs in the balance.
And on top of all that, the court is reviewing affirmative action and President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, which called for halting the deportation of DREAMers and undocumented parents of citizens and legal residents. It’s also put a hold on the president’s clean-power plan. Either America can limit how much carbon pollution we produce, or we can’t. And if we can’t, then our ability to work with other nations to meet the threat of climate change under the Paris agreement is greatly diminished.
In short: In a single term, the Supreme Court could demolish pillars of the progressive movement. And as someone who has worked on every single one of these issues for decades, I see this as a make-or-break moment.
If you care about the fairness of elections, the future of unions, racial disparities in universities, the rights of women, or the future of our planet, you should care about who wins the presidency and appoints the next Supreme Court justices.
And consider, if you will, the dangerous turn the court has taken in recent years toward protecting the rights of corporations over those of people.
Now you may have heard of the case Citizens United. The court ruled that corporations have an unfettered right to free speech, just like you and me. That means no limit on what corporations can spend independently to influence elections. And—big surprise—a flood of money from rich people, corporations and special interests has poured into our politics.
Citizens United opened the door to the creation of super PACs and between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, spending by outside groups tripled. In 2014, the top 100 donors to super PACs spent nearly as much as all 4.75 million small donors in the country combined.
Now the idea, I believe, that money is speech turns our Constitution upside down. Wealth should not be privileged in the courts—in fact, it should have no privilege. Yet at a time when inequality between working Americans and those at the top is starker than ever, the Supreme Court has given the wealthiest Americans even greater power to affect what happens in our democracy.
Justice Ginsburg says if there were one recent decision she’d overrule, it’s this one. I’m with her. And I hope she gets the chance to do just that.
Now people forget this, but the Citizens United case actually began with yet another a right-wing attack on me. It grew out of a Wisconsin case about whether corporations can run issue ads, so-called “issue ads,” close to an election. So we all have a personal stake in this.
If the court doesn’t overturn Citizens United, I will fight for a constitutional amendment to limit the influence of money in elections. It is dangerous to our country and poisonous to our politics.
But it doesn’t stop with Citizens United. This court has voted on the side of corporations—against the interests of workers, unions, consumers and the general public—in case after case.
It’s made it harder for consumers to band together to sue a corporation, even if they are collectively suffering from corporate behavior. So 2 million Comcast subscribers in Philadelphia were told they each had to hire a lawyer if they wanted to sue for fairer prices. One-and-a-half million women working at Walmart each had to hire a lawyer if they wanted to sue for sex discrimination. That’s a burden that the vast majority of people cannot afford.
I know this might sound a little technical, but it points to an alarming trend.
The court used to—in the 20th century anyway—protect the little guy against the rich and powerful. More and more, it’s doing the opposite—protecting the rich and powerful against the little guy.
One study found that between 2009 and 2012, the one party most likely to convince the court to hear a case, out of all the top petitioners, from every part of our society and economy, was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. So the court was more likely to take up cases concerning corporate interests and then to decide in favor of those corporate interests.
If I’m fortunate enough to be president, I will appoint justices who will make sure the scales of justice are not tipped away from individuals toward corporations and special interests; who will protect the constitutional principles of liberty and equality for all, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or political viewpoint; who will protect a woman’s right to choose, rather than billionaires’ right to buy elections; and who will see the Constitution as a blueprint for progress, not a barrier to it.
So I hope you and everyone across Wisconsin, everyone across America, keeps the court in mind when you vote.
Now, some of you may already have decided to support me, some of you may have decided differently—I will keep working to earn your vote. But even if you are decided or undecided, I will be for you. But I ask you this: Please make sure the court factors into your decision.
Conservatives know exactly how high the stakes are. For years, they have used aggressive legal strategies to accomplish through the courts what they’ve failed to accomplish through legislation. They couldn’t pass a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, so they tried to get the courts to do it. They couldn’t stop the president’s Clean Power Plan, and they couldn’t pass immigration reform, and they didn’t want the president to act, so they got the courts to step in.
Now they are fighting hard to make sure the Supreme Court includes as many right-wing justices as possible.
As scary as it might be, ask yourselves: What kind of justice will a President Trump appoint? Or for that matter, what kind of attorney general? What kind of lower court judges?
And as you know, he believes Muslims should be banned from entering this country because of their faith. What would that mean for a nation founded on religious freedom?
He wants to round up 11 million immigrants and kick them out. What would that mean for a nation built by immigrants?
He says wages for working people are too high and we shouldn’t raise the minimum wage. What would that mean for working people, and a court that’s already tilting in favor of powerful corporations?
Let’s be clear about what’s really going on here. The current fight over Judge Garland is just the latest in a long line of actions aimed at disrupting our government and undermining our president. And the result is an America that’s more divided, more dysfunctional, and less secure.
Consider how Republicans, led by Ted Cruz, shut down the entire federal government in 2013, rather than fund the Affordable Care Act. Or how they almost shut down the government again last fall over trying to defund Planned Parenthood.
Remember what Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said back in 2010—that the single most important priority for Republicans was making Barack Obama a one-term president. Now some people thought that was hyperbole. But I always remember Maya Angelou’s advice: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Right?
And today, Republican leaders have been showing us who they are, in fact, for a long time. Blocking Judge Garland is just the latest evidence and we should start believing them.
If you want to know where that kind of obstruction and recklessness leads, just look at the Republican race for the presidency.
Now every day, another Republican bemoans the rise of Donald Trump. They say a Trump nomination will set their party back decades. I agree. It will set the Republican Party back if Donald Trump is their standard-bearer.
But Donald Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. What the Republicans have sown with their extremist tactics, they are now reaping with Donald Trump’s candidacy.
It wasn’t long after Senator McConnell said his number-one goal was to prevent the president’s reelection that Donald Trump started his racist campaign to discredit the president’s citizenship—remember the birther movement? And Ted Cruz embarked on his strategy of holding the government hostage to get his way.
These things are connected.
When you have leaders willing to bring the whole of government to a halt to make headlines, you may just give rise to candidates who promise to do even more radical and dangerous things—because once you make the extreme normal, you open the door to even worse.
And when you have a party dead-set on demonizing the president, you may just end up with a candidate who says the president never legally was the president at all.
Enough is enough. It’s time for us to take a stand—and you can start right here in Wisconsin.
Your senator, Ron Johnson, is bragging about blocking the president. He’s in a tight race against former Senator Russ Feingold, an exceptional public servant. During his time on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Feingold actually helped build a stronger judiciary.
So when you leave here, I urge you to call the office of Senator Johnson, email him, contact him—if he has a Facebook page, go on and express your opinion. Tell him to stop playing games with the Supreme Court.
And remember this, remember this in November, when you choose who stands for you in the Senate: The incumbent will vote for corporations and against working people. His opponent will vote for a court that will listen to you.
Then keep these larger issues in mind when you go to the polls on April 5.
It’s time to get back to what makes America already great—respect for the rule of law, statesmanship over showmanship, and people working together across party lines for the good of the nation.
That’s what this court fight is really about. That’s what this election is about—whether we, as a country, are able to come together to meet the challenges we face and break down all the barriers holding people back; or whether we will be paralyzed by deadlock and divided from each other by bitter partisanship.
At our best, America has united behind the ideal that everyone deserves a fair shot, no matter who we are or where we started out. And at its best, the Supreme Court has defended that ideal.
Like in 1954, when the court abolished segregation in our schools.
Or 1973, when it ruled that women have the right to make intimate health decisions for ourselves.
Or 1977, when the court paved the way for public sector unions.
Or 1982, when it ruled that undocumented children had the right to go to school.
Or just last year, when the court ruled that marriage equality was the law of the land.
You know, all Jim Obergefell wanted was to marry his partner of more than 20 years, John Arthur, before John Arthur died of ALS. They ended up flying to Maryland, because their home state of Ohio didn’t recognize same-sex marriage. John was so sick, he couldn’t even leave the plane—but they got married right there on the tarmac in Baltimore, then flew straight home.
And when John died three months later, Ohio listed him as single on his death certificate. For the partner who had loved and cared for him, this was a bitter, painful blow, a rejection of the life they had built together over decades—until the Supreme Court ruled that Jim and John’s marriage was legal everywhere in the United States of America.
And in that decision, Justice Kennedy wrote, “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all its dimensions. So they entrusted to future generations a charge protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”
That decision is the latest reminder of what the court can do when it stand for equality, or against it. When it can make America a fairer place, or roll back the progress we’ve worked so hard to achieve.
It depends on what the court decides, and it depends on who’s deciding.
Which, in the end, means it depends on all of us.
So think hard about the court. For years people have tried to make the court a voting issues, and it’s not easy to do.
People are rightly concerned about their economic well-being, about the education of their children, about their health care, about their social security payment. About all the other issues that keep people up at night around millions of kitchen tables.
But this election has ripped away the curtain and made it absolutely clear to everyone how essential the Supreme Court is to those decisions as well. I will keep talking about it, and advocating, and calling on the Senate to do its job, and I hope there will be a great chorus of voices across our land that will do the same.
It’s our Constitution, it’s our court, and it’s our future.
Thank you all very much.