Justice Scalia’s death ignites ignoble partisanship
It’s business as usual in the U.S. Congress. Rather than letting a routine event run its course and moving on to address important issues, the highest legislative body in the land has once again decided to flex its political muscles in a pathetic and childish attempt to obstruct President Obama as he seeks to fill the gap in the Supreme Court left by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.
Scalia’s dead body was still warm when the first Republican leaders announced their intent to block President Obama’s nomination of a replacement.
Minutes after the news of Scalia’s death broke, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a contradictory statement applauding Scalia’s “fidelity to the Constitution” while espousing in the same breath the inherently unconstitutional idea that “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
The irony of praising strict adherence to the Constitution — which clearly states the President has power to nominate judges to the Supreme Court — and then advocating for a stranglehold on that power appeared to be lost on the six Republican candidates for president, who all agreed with McConnell’s statement in a debate held hours after Scalia’s death.
In the days that followed, other Republican senators fell in line behind McConnell’s vow, including Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
“It is common practice for the Senate to stop acting on lifetime appointments during the last year of a presidential term,” Portman claimed in a statement. “It’s been nearly 80 years since any president was permitted to immediately fill a vacancy that arose in a presidential election year.”
Portman’s statement is misleading at best. Although the vacancy technically opened up in late 1987, a Democratic-controlled Senate voted 97-0 to confirm Reagan’s nominee Anthony Kennedy in February of 1988, the president’s last full year in office.
If a Democratic Senate could confirm the nominee of a Republican president in 1988, why can’t a Republican Senate do the same with the nominee of a Democratic president in 2016?
It seems unlikely that Reagan, constantly held up as an icon of Republican conservatism, would approve of Congress’ commitment to obstructionism and petty partisan conflict were he alive today.
“I believe the time is now right for all Americans … to join together in a bipartisan effort to fulfill our constitutional obligation of restoring the United States Supreme Court to full strength,” said President Reagan in 1987 when announcing his nomination of Anthony Kennedy.
Antonin Scalia, the conservative justice whose death set off this whole firestorm, likely wouldn’t approve of congressional Republicans’ actions either.
David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Obama, recalls discussing the nomination of a new justice with Scalia in 2009. Axelrod said Scalia acknowledged that President Obama’s nominee would be a liberal.
“I hope he sends us someone smart,” Scalia said in a 2011 conversation with Axelrod. “I hope he sends us Elena Kagan.”
Kagan, a stalwart liberal, was eventually nominated to the Supreme Court a year later and confirmed. Scalia’s support for her nomination shows he respected President Obama’s constitutional power to nominate liberal justices.
Make what you will of the current state of the GOP, but I’m pretty sure that if Mitch McConnell and friends decide to go through with their petty power play, they’ll be haunted for years to come by the ghosts of conservatives past.
The Republicans’ decision to throw their full political weight toward stopping the nomination process isn’t just based on constitutional tunnel vision, or misleading interpretations of history, or violating the pragmatism of reasonable conservatives before them — it’s also poor strategy.
How well can Republicans expect to do this November when they continue to run Congress like a bunch of 8-year-olds in suits throwing temper tantrums?
Alex Storer is a contributing columnist for the Central Florida Future.