The Coming War Over the Supreme Court

Last Friday we learned of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Please take a moment to think of her and her family.  She was a great American and a great American success story, coming from humble roots in middle class Brooklyn New York to rise to the Supreme Court.  Along the way she was a true trail blazer and a forceful voice for human rights.  She will be missed.

Her death opens a seat on the Supreme Court and offers Mr. Donald J. Trump the chance to put a third Justice on the Court.  Elections do have consequences.  The question then becomes, when do the consequences of an election kick in?  In 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Senate Republicans kept an open seat on the Court for roughly a year claiming that no new Justices should be nominated or voted on until after the election of a new president.  President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland did not even get a hearing, much less an up or down vote.

The real player in the drama then and now is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Tr – KY).  As much as Mr. Trump has pushed and pulled and ignored the norms surrounding the office of the president, Mr. McConnell has done the most to undermine the legitimacy of the Senate and the norms that used to guide our selection of judges to federal courts and to the Supreme Court.  Along with unilaterally changing the required number of votes to approve a Supreme Court Justice from 60 — which normally meant that whichever party was in power would have to have some votes from the other party in order to confirm a nominee, thus allowing for more moderate judges to make it on to the court — it now only requires 51 votes which gives each party a chance to approve radical judges aligned with their party’s interests.

Indeed, Mr. McConnell has been so focused on getting judges on to the federal courts that very, very little else has been addressed over the last two years in the Senate.  Mr. McConnell put his pursuit of judges over the lives of the now 200,000 Americans dead from Covid-19.  He will not address any of the pandemic relief bills so desperately needed to fight the virus and to restore our economic well being.  So much for claiming to be pro-life.

Much has been and will be written about the sheer utter hypocrisy of Republicans surrounding the nomination and confirmation of a new Justice during an election year.  In 2016 it was a full ten months before the election.  This year it is only about six weeks before the election.  In fact, some states already have early voting underway.  You will see lots and lots of video clips of one Republican Senator after another twisting themselves into more knots than a pretzel trying to explain why it was different then than it is now.  Sad.  Additionally, please remember that there is no such thing as the “Biden Rule” or “Thurmond Rule” or even a “McConnell Rule.”  That is a lot of smoke to hide what is actually going on.  There is only the law.

The bottom line?  There is no shame in Trumpland.  They will do whatever they want and without regard to the lies, hypocrisy and sheer awfulness of it.  It won’t change so I won’t waste time arguing it or bemoaning it.  To quote the president’s remarks about the deaths of so many of our fellow citizens, “It is what it is.”

There is no shame.  It is just pure power politics.  In effect, they will steal a Supreme Court seat for the second time.

What action can those that still have a sense of duty do to stop it?  Procedurally, not much.  The Constitution is vague about this issue.  Article III, Section I of the Constitution says merely that:

“The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”

Significantly, there is no indication of how many Justices there shall be or exactly what their role should be.  Starting with the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress shapes the size and authority of the Court.  Of the three branches of our government, the Supreme Court is probably the one that most resembles its origins and relies heavily on custom and tradition in the process of taking care of business.  Chief Justice John Marshall, appointed to the court by President John Adams, is credited with shaping the court into the form and substance we know today.  The number of Justices on the court varied over time until 1869 when the number became nine and remains so today.

All of this is background as to what means are available to Democrats, and perhaps a few Republicans, to delay the confirmation until after the election and leave the choice to the winners in the White House and the Senate.

Since it now takes only 51 votes to over-ride any legislative maneuvering and to confirm a nominee, the opposition to a hasty process can only come from political pressure.  It is an election year and several Republican Senators are up for re-election and find themselves in very tight races.  This issue could have a significant impact on who is elected or re-elected.  If their constituents forcefully voice their opposition to proceeding without regard to the election, some sitting Senators may find it difficult to support Mr. McConnell’s plan.

So far two Republican Senators have indicated that they do not support moving ahead with the process until after the election.  Is it possible more might join them?  Possible, but not a sure thing.  Tremendous pressure will be applied to every Republican Senator to stay in line.  In that regard, when the vote is taken will be critical.

By all accounts, the only thing that Senator McConnell values more than changing the face of the judiciary is retaining his power and prestige as majority leader.  He will use everything in his power to keep power.  It is conceivable that to protect vulnerable Senators that could be harmed by having to vote for a Trump appointee prior to the election, he will hold hearings before the election to gauge the political winds and hold off on the actual vote until after the election.  Those that are re-elected are safe, those that are not have nothing to lose.  The question then becomes a matter of conscience as to how individuals may vote, a commodity that unfortunately seems to be in short supply in the current political arena.

It would be a real insult to our democratic ideals if the Republicans lose the White House and their majority in the Senate but go ahead and confirm a Trump appointee.

There are many scenarios that could play out.  I have no idea what will happen.  The Republicans have a three seat majority.  If three Republicans vote against a nominee, the Vice President would be the tie breaker.  The Democrats would need to convince at least four Republicans to vote against a nominee, something that will be difficult to do should the nominee be a truly qualified jurist.

It seems that for the Democrats to stop the appointment of another conservative Justice, thus giving them a 6-3 advantage on the Court, they need to play hardball.

During the last four years the institutions of our government have been abused, even debased, in the pursuit of power by Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell.  To play the same game, some advocate for the Democrats to say that should the process ignore the election results that they will expand the Court to include more Justices.  The law designating the number of Justices can be changed by a majority vote.

Personally, I think this is wrong.  It would never stop as eventually one party loses the majority and the other looks to regain the upper hand.  Our system of government has been under assault for four years, messing with the Supreme Court would be the beginning of the end of any restrictions on changing the rules to suit one party and undermining everything we used to hold as important to our fundamental system of government.

It may also backfire in that some voters may vote against the Democrats if they threaten to expand the Court.

There are some twists and turns that could influence the outcome.  Two Senate institutionalists are retiring this year.  Senators Lamar Alexander (TN) and Pat Roberts (KS), with no debt to pay to Mr. McConnell, or to Mr. Trump, may put the traditions and unwritten norms of the Senate and the judiciary above party politics.  Should Senators Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Susan Collins (ME) stick to their avowed decision to oppose a nominee that would be the four votes needed to stop this move.

Another wild card vote comes from Arizona where Senator Martha McSally is currently behind her Democrat opponent former astronaut Mark Kelly.  Since Senator McSally is an interim appointee (she fills the seat that belonged to John McCain), if Mr. Kelly wins the election he would be seated by the end of November bringing down the Republican advantage in the Senate.

Numerous possibilities will be floated in the coming weeks.  There are no arguments to be made or scenarios to play out should Mr. Trump get re-elected and Mr. McConnell retain his majority in the Senate.  There would be nothing that could, or should, stop Mr. Trump from seating his third appointee.  Mr. Trump will campaign on this issue and try to make it a referendum that he thinks will help him win.  Of course he wants the campaign to be about anything that distracts from his horrifying dereliction of duty mismanaging the pandemic and the loss of over 200,000 of our fellow citizens.

However the next few weeks unfold, two things are certain.  Our nation lost a truly historic presence in the Supreme Court and an already wild and improbable election cycle where anything can happen just got even wilder and more unpredictable.


3 Comments on “The Coming War Over the Supreme Court”

  1. Tom says:

    Justice Scalia died in 2016, a typo on my part. The post has been corrected. Tom

  2. Mike West says:

    Tom– In para. 3, you heavily imply that it is/was McConnell who got the Senate rules changed from needing 60 votes to approve a justice, to just a simple majority. Sorry, shipmate, you’ve got it all wrong…that was Harry Reid, D-NV who did that…remember “the nuclear option????” That was Reid’s baby, pure and simple. Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it??????????????????????

  3. Tom says:

    Sorry Mike but you are confused. Harry Reid did change the vote for federal judges to a simple majority. But he did not change the vote for Supreme Court Justices. Mitch McConnell did that. In my view Harry Reid should not have changed it at all. But he did try to keep at least one check in place.


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