The Man Who Changed History

As confirmation hearings get underway today for the next nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, and as the President of the United States continues to undermine the rule of law through his tweets, it may be time to ponder the impact on United States history made by one man.  No not him.  Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) is the man.

You will remember that when Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly in February 2016, President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to replace him in March 2016.  Senator McConnell as the Majority Leader of the Senate refused to even meet with him, much less allow hearings or a vote on the nomination.  This was unprecedented.  As I wrote at the time, the ability of a president to nominate a Supreme Court Justice, at any time in his term, was a long-established power held by the president.  Indeed, the precedent was set early when President John Adams nominated Chief Justice John Marshall after the election of 1800 and he assumed his position on the court at almost the moment President Adams was walking out the door of the White House (Thomas Jefferson won the 1800 election).

For the record, because we hear it still, there is no “Biden Rule” as claimed by the Republicans in the Senate as the reason for not moving Judge Garland’s nomination forward.  The truth is that then Senator Joe Biden of Delaware gave a speech in June 1992 where he argued that the president, at the time President George H. W. Bush, should not nominate a new Supreme Court Justice before the election.  But here is “the rest of the story.”  There was no vacancy on the Supreme Court.  There was no nominee to the Supreme Court.  The Senate never voted on his proposal and it was never incorporated into the rules.  And he did not argue that a president could not nominate someone should a vacancy occur, only that given the proximity of the upcoming election, the president should wait until at least the day after an election to make the nomination.  The “Biden Rule” is poppycock.  It doesn’t exist.  Senator McConnell had to really, really reach deep for a shaky reason for an unprecedented act on his part.

The seat left by Justice Scalia sat vacant for over a year.

But that’s not all.

Senator McConnell had an even bigger impact when, to facilitate what promised to be a hard-fought confirmation vote for then Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, he changed the Senate rules on a straight party vote to allow for a simple majority (51 votes) to confirm a Supreme Court nominee rather than stay with the over 200 year tradition of a super majority (now 60 votes) to confirm.  This is the long-lasting and perhaps devastating change to our nation’s judiciary and its independence that will haunt us for generations to come.

Why?  The reasons are complex but the simplest, and perhaps most important answer, is that for much of our nation’s history requiring a super majority usually meant that a nominee must appeal to a number of members of the opposite party in power.  This historically meant that radical judges mostly could not garner the required number of votes for approval.  This tended to result in nominees being right or left of center rather than far right or left.  There had to be a modicum of moderation in the nominee’s past and probable future rulings on the court.  That useful tool is now gone.  The party in power can put in the most radical, and dare I say political, Justice that they may find and do it for purely political or ideological reasons.  Many argue that the Supreme Court is already too political.  Well, we now have the potential for it to become a political tool of whichever party is in control of the White House and Senate.

Since the rules that have guided our nation for so long are now no longer followed, what block is there in the future for a president and his party’s Senate to use a simple majority to put eleven or thirteen or any number of justices on the Court?  The incoming party looks at the make up of the Supreme Court, decides that in order to overcome the last ruling party’s political Justices they will just pack the Court with enough Justices to override those that came from the other party.

Yes, I know that President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court and was thwarted.  Here’s the rub.  The Constitution does not say how many Justices should be on it.  It merely says that the Federal Judiciary should consist of “one supreme Court and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”  The first Supreme Court nominated by President George Washington had six Justices including the Chief Justice.  Through our early history Congress passed a series of Judiciary Acts that designated the number of Justices and it varied from five to ten.  The current nine members is the result of an act in 1869.  The point is that Congress sets the number of Justices and since precedent has already been over turned, what will stop some future Congress from changing the law regarding the number of Justices?

Senator McConnell changed the future by effectively doing away with natural “checks and balances” that tended to keep our Justices more moderate than they might be and by putting political expediency in front of principle, thus opening the door for others to do so in the future.

The expectation is that Judge Kavanaugh will get at least 51 votes and join the Court.  His is a critical addition in an era where the president tweets constantly for law enforcement to punish his political adversaries (“Lock her up!”) and to protect his political supporters.  Just yesterday he tweeted out

“Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff.”  — Tweet from Donald J. Trump on 3 September 2018

“Jeff” is of course Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  The “two very popular Republican Congressmen” are Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca) indicted by a federal grand jury of misusing over $250,000 of campaign funds and the other is Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) indicted on charges of insider trading.  Both have pleaded not guilty, however Rep. Collins suspended his re-election campaign.  For the record, Rep. Collins conducted his insider trading during the Trump Administration and indeed he is caught on film on the White House lawn making one of the calls that set off the chain of events that led to the charges.  The larger point is that the president is chiding his Attorney General for enforcing the law because people from his own party, that incidentally were the first two members of the House to endorse Mr. Trump, and that could help him politically, were the perpetrators.  So much for the rule of law and the president’s sworn oath to uphold the Constitution.

Further, thanks to Senator McConnell, we may now have two Justices on the Court appointed by a president that is very, very likely to have critical Constitutional issues surrounding the survival of his presidency come before them.  One could argue that the current nomination process should be put on hold until the unindicted co-conspirator in the White House has his legal situation resolved.

Long after we move past the current unfolding Constitutional crises, the impact of Senator McConnell’s decision to put political expediency above the good of the nation’s proven processes will have unintended consequences.



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