Members of People For the American Way and Granite State Progress delivered 92 empty chairs to U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte’s Nashua district office yesterday to symbolize the seats on the federal courts left vacant by Republican obstruction of the president’s judicial nominees. This event took place on the first day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s new term as part of a nationwide Day of Action to call attention to the dozens of unfilled vacancies on the federal courts.
When it comes to partisan filibustering of judicial nominees, Sen. Ayotte has consistently taken her marching orders from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She was a willing partner in Republican efforts to filibuster highly qualified nominees to fill circuit and district court vacancies. In late 2013, she even followed McConnell’s party edict to filibuster all three of President Obama’s D.C. Circuit nominees. Senate Republicans admitted that this was not based on any nominee’s qualifications—they argued that Obama should not be able to fill any of the three vacancies on the 11-member court. It was a transparent effort to keep the D.C. Circuit with a majority of very conservative judges. And since Ayotte’s party took over the Senate last year, the number of judicial vacancies has doubled, while the number of those designated emergencies has tripled.
“Now that the Senate is out for recess through the election and the Supreme Court is beginning a new session, it’s official: Sen. Kelly Ayotte hasn’t only aided some of the most far-right Republicans in the Senate by refusing to move forward with hearings and a vote to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, but she’s also stood with obstructionist Republicans in refusing to take action on other federal judicial nominations,” said Linds Jakows, NH Campaign Organizer with People For the American Way. “This is especially troubling since she tries so hard to brand herself as ‘bipartisan and independent.’ She clearly hasn’t listened to voters who know that obstructing justice on the highest courts and paving the way for Trump’s extreme shortlist is neither independent nor bipartisan.”
Yesterday, Massachusetts senator and progressive hero Elizabeth Warren joined PFAW’s Michael Keegan and Marge Baker on a member telebriefing to discuss GOP senators’ unprecedented obstruction of judicial nominations at all levels, including their refusal to give fair consideration to President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.
Sen. Warren noted on the call that Senate Republicans are now “setting new records for obstruction.” She suggested that they “might want to pull a copy of the Constitution out and take a look,” since the document is “crystal clear” about the Senate’s responsibility to confirm or reject the judges the president nominates. Instead, Warren said, GOP senators are trying to hold the Supreme Court seat open for a President Trump so that he can nominate judges who will bend the laws to suit their interests and the interests of their powerful friends.
Sen. Warren encouraged PFAW members and supporters to ask their senators why they won’t do their jobs and to keep up the pressure. “People For the American Way has done a fantastic job of putting pressure on Senate Republicans to give these judges timely consideration and an up-or-down vote,” she said. “This is a tough fight, but you don't get what you don't fight for.”
Marge Baker reviewed the work that PFAW is doing to make sure Republicans are held accountable at the ballot box on Election Day, including on-the-ground organizing targeting senators who have refused to do their jobs and PFAW’s massive Latinos Vote! campaign, designed to make sure Latino voters are ready to help deliver a progressive victory in November.
You can listen to a recording of the call here:
It was both completely in character and shamefully beyond the pale when Donald Trump accused Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over two lawsuits against Trump University, of having an “inherent conflict of interest” in the cases because of the judge’s Mexican heritage. On Sunday he extended that charge to Muslim judges, who he also suspects would be unable to remain unbiased. If there was a shred of doubt remaining on the question of whether Donald Trump is fit to make judicial nominations before this attack, that debate is now over. Even GOP senators arespeaking out against Trump’s remarks. But in a contortion act that defies logic, those same senators continue to go to extraordinary lengths to hold open the vacant Supreme Court seat for the very person whose approach to judicial matters they are condemning.
GOP leaders rushed to denounce Trump’s remarks about Judge Curiel, with Republican senators including Kelly Ayotte, Jeff Flake, Rob Portman, and Mitch McConnell speaking out against his comments and House Speaker Paul Ryan calling them “out of left field” even though even a casual observer knows they were coming right from home plate for the past year. Trump has been consistent in his baseless attacks on entire communities since the first day of his campaign, when he smeared Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers. And if some in the GOP are (rightly) condemning Trump’s vision of a justice system in which some judges are prohibited from doing their jobs because of their ethnic background, why are they going to extraordinary lengths to put him in the driver’s seat of our nominating process?
GOP senators are still doing everything they can to block President Obama from filling the Supreme Court vacancy. Rather than follow the Constitution and give fair consideration to President Obama’s extraordinarily qualified and respected nominee, GOP senators are running a campaign of unprecedented obstruction in order to allow Trump to make the Supreme Court nomination instead.
Let’s be clear: Trump had already provided countless reasons to call into question his fitness to nominate judges. This is a man who supports killing the family members of terrorists and wants to “open up” libel laws so he can go after journalists. That he’s now implying whole swaths of people are not fit for the federal bench is one of the most disturbing examples yet of Trump’s contempt for the independence of the judiciary and for Americans different from him. It goes against the most fundamental values of our country, and it is Exhibit A of why he should never be the person nominating judges at the Supreme Court or any level.
It’s no wonder Americans are worried about the prospect of Donald Trump making judicial nominations. Even before his attack on Judge Curiel, a recent poll found that the majority of Americans don’t trust Trump to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, and they’re none too pleased with the senators obstructing President Obama’s nominee.Half of voters say they are “less likely to vote for a senator who opposed having confirmation hearings” for Judge Merrick Garland. For Republican senators in tight reelection battles, their unwillingness to do their jobs is increasingly and rightfully becoming a liability with voters.
The fact that GOP senators are flat-out refusing to do their jobs on the Supreme Court was already an outrage. That they are now working to hold the seat open for a man who thinks some judges can’t do their jobs because of their ethnic background or religion is unconscionable and should be, quite frankly, embarrassing to all Republicans. GOP leaders are in a position of both condemning Trump’s approach to judicial issues and working to make sure he’s the one to make lifetime judicial appointments. Make sense? It doesn’t to me, either.
The choice is now crystal clear. It’s time to call the question and give Merrick Garland a vote.
Within hours of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this month, conservatives retroactively invented a bogus “tradition” that Supreme Court justices are never confirmed in presidential election years. That claim is demonstrably false, but conservatives are sticking with it in an attempt to justify their efforts to keep President Obama from naming the next Supreme Court justice.
Today, the pro-obstruction crowd thought it got a boost when a short clip of now-Vice President Joe Biden was unearthed from the depths of the C-SPAN archives. In the clip of the 1992 floor speech, Biden, who was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during what turned out to be the last year of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, urges the president to, in the event of a Supreme Court vacancy, “not name a nominee until after the November election is completed.”
Well, not quite.
As ThinkProgress’ Igor Volsky and Biden himself have pointed out, when taken in context, that wasn't Biden's point. The then-senator made the remarks in the context of a long speech bemoaning the increased politicization of the confirmation process and, in Biden’s words, urging the White House and the Senate to “work together to overcome partisan differences to ensure the Court functions as the Founding Fathers intended.”
Secondly, even if you were to claim that Biden were offering some new rule for blocking Supreme Court nominations, that rule wouldn't cover the current situation.
Look at the timestamp on the video. Biden was speaking on June 25, 1992 about filling a vacancy if a justice “resigns tomorrow or within the next several weeks resigns at the end of the summer.” By June 25, the presidential primaries were over and Bill Clinton was the presumptive Democratic nominee. That’s a very different point in an election year than we are in today, when the vacancy opened so very early on in the presidential nominating contests and with the risk of a Supreme Court seat remaining open for more than a year, severely disrupting two consecutive terms.
If you go back to read the transcript of Biden’s remarks, he repeatedly states that he is concerned about vacancies that occur “in the summer or fall of a presidential election year” — not vacancies that occur as early in the year as Justice Scalia’s did. The last four Supreme Court confirmations took an average of 75 days from nomination to confirmation, meaning that if President Obama nominates anyone in the next month, they could be confirmed well before the period that Biden was supposedly arguing should be off-limits for Supreme Court nominations.
There is still no “tradition” of shutting down judicial nominations for the entire last year of a presidency or of leaving the Supreme Court short-handed for an entire year.
And, as Volsky notes, while Biden didn’t face a Supreme Court vacancy in 1992, his Judiciary Committee did continue approving Circuit Court nominees well through the summer and fall of the election year, a stark contrast to current Republican threats to shut down the judicial nominations process entirely this year:
In 1992, Biden's Judiciary Committee reported at least 1 circuit court nominee in Feb, April, May, June, August, Sep, Oct.— igorvolsky (@igorvolsky) February 22, 2016
Note to senators in tough reelection battles: putting your Washington DC party bosses over the Constitution by standing in the way of filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court is not only the wrong thing to do for our country, it’s also making voters less likely to support you.
New Public Policy Polling surveys released today show that large majorities of voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where Senators Pat Toomey and Rob Portman are running for reelection, want the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death to be filled this year. According to the polling memo:
- Strong majorities of voters – 58/35 in Ohio and 57/40 in Pennsylvania – think that the vacant seat on the Supreme Court should be filled this year. What’s particularly noteworthy about those numbers – and concerning for Portman and Toomey – is how emphatic the support for approving a replacement is among independent voters. In Ohio they think a new Justice should be named this year 70/24 and in Pennsylvania it’s 60/37.
- …Voters are particularly angry about Senators taking the stance that they’re not going to approve anyone before even knowing who President Obama decides to put forward. By a 76/20 spread in Pennsylvania and a 74/18 one in Ohio, voters think the Senate should wait to see who is nominated to the Court before deciding whether or not to confirm that person. Toomey and Portman are out of line even with their own party base on that one – Republicans in Pennsylvania think 67/27 and in Ohio think 63/32 that the Senate should at least give President Obama’s choice a chance before deciding whether or not to confirm them. [emphasis added]
Perhaps most notable for the senators, more than half of voters (52 percent in both states) say they would be less likely to vote for Toomey or Portman if they “refused to confirm a replacement for Justice Scalia this year no matter who it was.” Among independents, the numbers were even higher.
Senators Toomey and Portman would be wise to take heed of their constituents, and of the Constitution, and stop refusing to even consider any Supreme Court nominee, regardless of his or her credentials. Any nominee must be treated fairly and honestly. The Supreme Court is far too important to be held hostage to the overtly political obstruction of GOP senators.