Primetime news has largely overlooked the future ideological direction of the U.S. Supreme Court as a key election issue, failing to note that the candidate who wins in November will likely appoint justices and shape how the court will decide vitally important issues.
Other news outlets have acknowledged the significance of Court nominations for the next president. The New York Times has reported that "[t]he winner of the race for president will inherit a group of justices who frequently split 5 to 4 along ideological lines. That suggests that the next president could have a powerful impact if he gets to replace a justice of the opposing side." The Associated Press has added that "[d]ecisions on many of the hot-button issues in recent years have been by 5-4 votes. These include upholding Obama's health care overhaul, favoring gun rights, limiting abortion, striking down campaign finance laws, allowing consideration of race in higher education and erecting barriers to class-action lawsuits." Both articles note that because four justices are currently in their seventies, the next president's prospects for appointing multiple justices are very real.
The Evening News Is Virtually Ignoring the Supreme Court As An Election Issue ...
Although prospective Supreme Court nominations are even more important than usual in the 2012 presidential election, primetime election coverage has essentially ignored the issue. Since April 10, the day Mitt Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee, neither CBS nor NBC has covered the future of the Supreme Court as an election issue in their nightly news programs. ABC's coverage has been limited to Jake Tapper's fleeting mention of the topic on August 22 in a pre-Democratic Convention segment about reproductive rights and Roe v. Wade.
CNN touched on the topic twice, but its total length of coverage was also exceedingly brief (37 seconds in total, only one second more than ABC's solitary reference). In one segment, The Situation Room's Jack Cafferty read an email from a viewer -- "Sam from Florida" - instead of exploring the issue of the Court's future with a CNN host or reporter. In comparison, MSNBC primetime hosts and guests have been much more thorough in their election coverage, repeatedly referencing the importance of upcoming Court vacancies, with hosts Lawrence O'Donnell and Al Sharpton dedicating the most attention. Fox News has not covered the topic at all.
... Despite Its Vital Significance in 2012
The Supreme Court is an important issue worthy of coverage during every presidential election, and the next president's ability to reshape the Court is especially important this cycle. The advanced age of four of the justices means that the next president may have the power to remake today's very conservative Court. Liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer and conservative justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia will all be 74 or older in the first year of the next presidential term.
The high likelihood of multiple judicial nominations to the Court for the next president is even more newsworthy in light of the Court's sharp ideological polarization. Although experts have termed the Court presided over by Chief Justice John Roberts the most conservative in U.S. history, the Court remains sharply split, with many cases decided by a vote of 5-4. As noted by The New York Times, despite its overall rightward shift, the Court also has made a handful of decisions that were important victories for progressives:
Since Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the Supreme Court in 2005, there have been more than 100 5-to-4 decisions. In 30 of these decisions, the majority has included the court's four most liberal members and another justice.
The current Supreme Court term beginning this October, at the height of the presidential campaign, will give the media additional opportunities to report on the importance of the Court's composition as an electoral issue. In addition to potentially eliminating equal opportunity in higher education, the Court could also declare a core section of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional and rule on marriage equality. The Court also will decide a series of cases that will determine whether the U.S. Chamber of Commerce can continue its unprecedented streak of legal victories for big business at the expense of consumers and workers.
For this survey, Media Matters keyword searched weekday primetime television transcripts available on Nexis. Primetime was defined as weekday coverage occurring between 5:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. and news transcripts for ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC were examined. Nexis does not include the Fox Report with Shepard Smith in its provided transcripts. The time period surveyed was from April 10 through September 24.