Justice Ginsburg's Death Reminds Reluctant Mass. Voters Of Election's High Stakes For Supreme Court

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The flag-draped casket of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, carried by Supreme Court police officers, arrived in the Great Hall at the Supreme Court in Washington Wednesday. Ginsburg, 87, died of cancer on Sept. 18. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
The flag-draped casket of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, carried by Supreme Court police officers, arrived in the Great Hall at the Supreme Court in Washington Wednesday. Ginsburg, 87, died of cancer on Sept. 18. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

For some voters, the upcoming presidential election is straining party loyalty. In a recent WBUR poll conducted by the MassINC Polling Group, roughly one in nine likely Massachusetts voters who are registered Democrats or Republicans said they have an unfavorable opinion of their own party's nominee.

But the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg could rally some of these unenthusiastic members of each party's base.

Robert Halstead, a Republican from Belmont, couldn't bring himself to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. He went with the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld to "protest that the Republicans hadn't come up with a more appealing candidate."

But Halstead, who is 66, will vote for Trump this November, in part because the president has placed conservative jurists Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and could soon install a third justice to replace the liberal Ginsburg.

"I don't approve of the president, as a person, and I do have some reservations about his judgment in many issues," Halstead said. "But I actually do approve of most of the policies that have been enacted under his watch, and I do approve of his judicial nominations."

The ideological labels attached to judges can be oversimplifications. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh have sometimes surprised observers by siding with the Supreme Court's left-leaning minority.

Still, some conservative voters are optimistic that Trump nominees could help overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that expanded abortion rights.

"I'm hoping for it," said Mary McNulty, 69, of Stoneham. "For women to be given the right to abortion by the federal government totally turns me off."

McNulty's strong anti-abortion belief is one reason she's leaning toward Trump, despite her distaste for him.

Trump has said he'll reveal his next nominee Friday or Saturday. Senate Republicans appear to have just enough votes to confirm a new justice before Election Day.

But even if the election doesn't determine who picks Ginsburg's successor, her death is a reminder — at a time when ballots are already being cast in some states — that presidential contests can have big judicial consequences.

"With Ruth Bader Ginsburg's passing, I literally cried when it came on the TV on the breaking news," said Sara Brenton, 38, of Whitman. She was upset by the prospect of the Supreme Court tilting further right.

Brenton is a Democrat who supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the presidential primary, and she holds a dim view of nominee Joe Biden.

But she can't bear the thought of Trump choosing even more justices in a second term, so she and some friends who are also fans of Warren have made a pact.

"Every single one of us is going to get out and vote" for Biden, she said.

That's what Bernie Sanders backer Jonathan Ellenberger plans to do, too, even though he strongly dislikes Biden.

The 39-year-old from Pembroke is still bitter that Senate Republicans refused to consider then-President Obama's Supreme Court nominee during the 2016 election cycle, and he's frustrated that many of those same senators are now willing to vote on Trump's selection.

"People like [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, they just want to win," Ellenberger said.

Ellenberger faults Democrats for, in his view, failing to match the win-at-all-costs intensity of the GOP in recent years. He wants Democrats to take the White House, flip the Senate and then "pull out all the stops. Win. You know, win!"

That could mean expanding the Supreme Court to create a liberal majority.

After Ginsburg's death, some voters on the left and the right who aren't excited about their party's candidate are fired up about the election's judicial stakes.

This segment aired on September 24, 2020.


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Callum Borchers Reporter
Callum covered the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.



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