For Democrats, justice’s retirement is the cruelest twist

On Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement.
On Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement.(T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg/File 2017)

For political liberals, this was precisely the week they feared back on Election Night in 2016.

It started bad enough, when the five-member conservative wing of the US Supreme Court — including Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s pick for a seat that came open during Barack Obama’s tenure — gave Trump a clear victory by upholding his travel ban against several predominantly Muslim countries. The next day, the high court delivered a major setback to labor unions, ruling that government employees can’t be forced to pay union dues.

But that was just prelude. On Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, handing Trump the chance to nominate a successor and raising the prospect that a reconstituted court will overturn its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights.


“I’ve had better weeks,” said Rebecca Hart Holder, director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. Hart Holder said she was sitting at her desk when she got a text message from a friend, telling her Kennedy was retiring.

“I was incredibly rattled, and it took me a few minutes to get myself together,” she said.

For Democrats already outraged over the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the Mexican border, Kennedy’s impending departure was the nightmare scenario. Given a second nominee in less than two years in office, Trump could cement a conservative majority on the high court for years to come.

“I’m a single-issue voter, and my issue is the Supreme Court,” Hart Holder said. “This is exactly what we feared would happen.”

In Cambridge, the mood among many progressives was bleak. In a week where the Supreme Court’s importance was writ large, a rightward shift was almost too much to bear.

“Let’s just say it’s bad timing,” said K aren Miller, 61, a faculty associate at the University of Maine. Miller was working at home when she saw the news of Kennedy’s retirement. She was quickly filled with “horror, shock, and a sense of dread.”


Karen Bao, 24, an author and graduate student in biology at Harvard University, agreed that the news seemed too terrible to be true.

“I didn’t think it was real,” she said. “I was home alone, which probably wasn’t a good thing.”

On Tuesday, Bao had taken to Twitter to denounce the Supreme Court’s decision upholding Trump’s travel ban, a ruling the president hailed as a “moment of profound vindication.” After Kennedy’s announcement, she warned her followers about the possibility of Roe being overturned.

“I can’t believe we’re going to actually have to worry about this,” she said.

Her concern was echoed by supporters of abortion rights across the country. Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said Kennedy’s retirement “is devastating news at a divisive time in our nation and on the Supreme Court.”

“The stakes of the coming nomination fight are extraordinary,” she said in a statement. “The future of reproductive rights is on the line.”

Although some Democrats were outraged by Kennedy’s retirement, others said they had become somewhat resigned to political disappointment since Trump’s election.

“It’s very disappointing how unsurprised I was,” said Julia Piper, 29, director of operations at Aeronaut Brewing in Somerville. “It says a lot about where we are politically that there’s a general numbness to changes on a national scale.”


Jordan Berg Powers, executive director at Mass Alliance, a coalition for political and advocacy organizations, said his frustration quickly gave way to resolve.

“I just had a moment of ‘That sucks,’ ” he said. “And then the fight continues.”

A centrist who played a pivotal role on a divided court, Kennedy, 81, had sided with liberal justices on major cases involving abortion and gay rights, and his departure struck some Democrats as a betrayal.

“I felt sort of deserted,” said Stephen Atkinson, 72, a political independent who lives in Belmont. “I think this left people feeling like, ‘What do we do now?’ ”

But after a week that delivered one disappointment after another, Atkinson took heart in one recent political development: the stunning primary victory of Democratic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former campaign organizer for Bernie Sanders.

“There are lot more people like her, I think,” he said. “And they learned a lot from Bernie Sanders’ campaign.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.