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In last night’s presidential debate, the candidates discussed several important issues where their choices for the Supreme Court will be critical for Americans’ rights. Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is elected will decide whether Roe v. Wade is overruled, whether the Court’s historic Obergefell decision on marriage equality is thrown out by a Trump Court, and whether Congress and state legislatures can enact common-sense laws on gun safety and money in politics.
But there are a number of other issues the Supreme Court rules on that underscore why it is crucial that a President Clinton, backed by a Democratic Senate, selects nominees to fill the up-to-four Court vacancies that are likely in the next four years. Specifically:
These examples and more are likely products of a Supreme Court to which a President Trump is able to nominate even one or two new justices. With three or more nominations considered likely in the next president’s first term, the consequences to all Americans would be disastrous. And in light of recent threats by Republicans like John McCain to block all Clinton nominees to the High Court, it is crucial that Americans also vote for a Democratic Senate.
This week marked the start of a second consecutive term of the Supreme Court without a full roster of nine justices. For months, Senate Republicans have refused to hold a confirmation hearing—and, in some cases, to even meet with—President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland, despite being considered to be perhaps the most qualified Supreme Court nominee in modern history. Members of both parties have applauded his judicious temperament, deep legal knowledge and fair-minded approach to dealing with difficult cases.
To mark the record-breaking 202 days since Garland’s nomination, PFAW and a cadre of allies assembled a crowd of more than 200 people to hold signs calling on Senate Republicans to do their job by holding a hearing and a vote. Speakers at the rally included organizational leaders, such as PFAW’s own executive vice president Marge Baker, as well as the lead plaintiff in the landmark 2015 marriage equality decision, Jim Obergefell. The bipartisan event also featured Republican voters who are fed up with the relentless obstructionism of their leaders in the Senate.
Because of the Supreme Court vacancy, in recent months a number of critical issues have been left unresolved. Cases pertaining to immigration, affirmative action, and reproductive health have been left hamstrung by a deadlocked court, with cases being sent back down to lower courts because of the inability to break a tie. With the highest judicial body in the United States unable to resolve issues that affect millions of Americans, now more than ever people must tell Republican members of the Senate to #DoYourJob.
Much has already been written about the dangers that a Supreme Court with even one or two Donald Trump-appointed justices would pose to all our rights and liberties. Trump’s latest list of 10 more possible nominees makes that even clearer. In making his announcement last Friday, Trump proclaimed he was using the late Justice Antonin Scalia as a model for his picks, delighting the far Right. A quick look at these potential nominees’ records shows that they would in fact swing the court far to the right, maybe even further than Justice Scalia, on issues like the environment, voting rights, money in politics, consumer rights, gun violence, LGBT and reproductive rights and more. For the sake of all our rights and liberties, Trump cannot be given the opportunity to nominate Supreme Court justices.
Most of the attention so far has focused on Trump’s naming of Sen. Mike Lee as a potential Supreme Court nominee. Among his many other radical positions, Lee has denounced Supreme Court decisions upholding marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose, and has claimed that Social Security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, minimum wage and child labor laws, and many more are unconstitutional. Although Lee has indicated he is satisfied with his current job, at least for now, the prospect of Lee on the court has excited the far Right.
The lesser-known candidates on Trump’s list are similarly alarming. Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady, who as a member of the House helped lead the fight to impeach President Clinton in the Senate, has been dubbed one of the Florida Court’s “Scalia-Thomas duo” because of far-right dissents he and one other conservative have written. These included one dissent that would have invalidated state restrictions on soliciting campaign contributions by state judges, and another that would have reversed a decision protecting vulnerable seniors from mandatory arbitration rules by nursing homes.
Another new Trump candidate, Neil Gorsuch of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, recently argued that the Supreme Court’s Chevron decision, under which courts defer to environmental and other agency interpretations of ambiguous laws and which even Justice Scalia had supported, is unconstitutional and should be overruled. Tim Tymkovich, another 10th Circuit judge on Trump’s new list, argued in a dissent that a federal regulation banning the carrying and storing of guns on U.S. Postal Service property should be partially struck down as unconstitutional.
The records of other state supreme court judges on Trump’s list are also disturbing. Georgia’s Keith Blackwell wrote in one case that homeowners injured by a plant’s release of hydrogen sulfide gas could not bring a class action against the plant, even though several lower courts said that they could. Iowa’s Edward Mansfield argued in one dissent that a fired employee should not be able to claim retaliatory discharge when she was fired by an assisted living facility for complaining about a supervisor forging state-mandated training documents. And Michigan’s Robert Young campaigned for re-election as a Tea Party candidate, appearing before Tea Party groups and securing their endorsements. His judicial record has been criticized as “partisan, wildly activist, rabidly pro-insurance, and anti-consumer.” For example, in one case he dissented from a decision that restored the basic rule, which he himself had helped strike down in an earlier case, that allows auto accident victims to sue for pain and suffering. And Young wrote one opinion upholding a requirement mandating photo ID at the polls, despite another judge’s contention that “history will judge us harshly” for the decision.
Perhaps the best summary of Trump’s new list was offered by Carrie Severino of the right-wing Judicial Crisis Network. Trump “continues to take unprecedented steps,” she proclaimed, to show that he would nominate people “like Scalia, Thomas, and Alito” to the Supreme Court. Severino and Trump are clearly hoping that this will shore up Trump’s support on the far Right. In fact, it has already helped secure Trump’s endorsement by former rival and right-wing Sen. Ted Cruz. But for all other Americans, the prospect of Trump nominees to the Supreme Court is truly frightening. This November, voters need to ensure that Donald Trump does not become President Trump.
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:
The number of Republican elected officials criticizing Donald Trump and condemning his policies while pledging to vote for him has many people understandably scratching their heads, and it’s not hard to see why: politicians calling out the GOP nominee in one breath and then working to bring him and his agenda into power in the next utterly defies logic.
I’d like to propose a name for this odd species of politicians: Trumpublicans.
Trumpublicans: /trəmˈpəbləkən/ — n., pl. 1. Republicans who’ve endorsed or pledged to vote for Trump to win support from far-right voters. 2. Republicans who claim to oppose Trump’s hateful campaign, yet work to advance his candidacy and agenda (e.g. holding a Supreme Court seat open for him to fill.)
Examples of Trumpublicans abound. Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire has tried to separate herself from Trump, refusing to endorse him and saying that she would “stand up” to him. But she also says that she’s “glad to get his endorsement” and still plans to vote for him. Huh? Senator John McCain of Arizona is trying to toe the same line, at times criticizing Trump while repeatedly stating his commitment to vote for him. Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey says that Trump’s actions “give me great pause” but has still refused to disavow him.
There’s no more egregious example than the fight over the Supreme Court vacancy to show how each of these senators are already actively working to support Trump’s extremist agenda. They may express misgivings about Trump with their words, but with their actions, they are holding open the vacant Supreme Court seat so that it can be filled by him. They are going to extraordinary lengths—ignoring their constitutionally-defined responsibilities—to let the next Supreme Court justices be picked by Donald Trump, a man who says a judge can’t do his job because of his Mexican heritage.
Senators’ comments against Trump mean nothing when their actions and votes are still with him in all the ways that count. These senators are trying to have it both ways in a straddle to appeal to both voters with common sense and decency and those who are turned on by Trump’s hate.
Too many people have written off the Trumpublican phenomenon as being only about Trump as if he’s a one-time thing. “He’s coming out of left field,” the story goes. “He’s so out-there that he’s putting ‘moderate’ Republicans in a tough place.” But when it comes to his anti-Latino, anti-women, anti-just-about-everyone agenda, Trump’s not coming out of left field; he’s coming straight from home plate. He’s riding the sorry momentum that the Republican party has built for years.
After all, way before Trump, this is the party that has threatened to shut down the government over immigration reform and the funding of Planned Parenthood. The party of “self-deportation.” The party that wants to ban abortion. The party that now denies science and doesn’t believe in the president’s birthplace or religion. There is no question that Trump’s rhetoric is horrific, but don’t believe the myth that he is a wild aberration; in many ways, he is tapping into the very core of the Republican party that tragically for the country has become more and more extreme every year.
There’s a reason why the strong recommendations of the infamous 2012 GOP post-loss post-mortem couldn’t be heeded, and this was long before the idea of a Trump candidacy was a glimmer in any Republican eye.
This is no longer your granddaddy’s GOP. And it’s not going to be the “the party of Lincoln”—a description they love to throw around, no matter how increasingly inaccurate—again until people start to stand up to the likes of Donald Trump and to the base that so decisively elected him. It’s as simple as that. You can’t tell your children and grandchildren that you stood against a man who proposed banning all members of a religious group from the country, who smeared an entire community as rapists and criminals, who claimed a judge couldn’t do his job because of his heritage. No, Trumpublicans will have to tell them that even though they said Trump was in the wrong, they stood by him all the way.
In light of Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s continued refusal to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, members of People For the American Way and Granite State Progress donned Supreme Court justice robes Wednesday in front of her Nashua office to demonstrate that Granite Staters will be watching the Supreme Court vacancy when she returns to DC from Congressional recess. Members of both groups also brought a symbolic empty chair and a sign reading “fill this seat.”
“We’re bringing the Supreme Court to Sen. Ayotte today, since she’s tried so hard to ignore it,” said Linds Jakows, New Hampshire Campaign Organizer with People For the American Way, “Obstruction that results in leaving the seat open for Trump to fill is neither independent nor bipartisan, as she likes to call herself, and she’s ignoring the majority of her constituents who understand filling this vacancy is crucial in bringing forth justice for millions of people.”
Ayotte has remained in lockstep with her party leadership on this vacancy, forcing the highly qualified Merrick Garland to wait more days than any nominee in history. Recently Ayotte called Trump’s Supreme Court shortlist a “good start,” apparently ignoring the many extreme rulings from these judges. One judge on Trump’s shortlist, Steven Colloton, said that a woman who reports sexual harassment cannot take legal action if her employer retaliates by firing her.
Participating activists took photo petitions amplifying this message -- Margaret and Rocco Femia and Carol and Karl Stamm called out Ayotte’s hypocrisy and so-called independence, while Marcel ‘Dusty’ Liberge and Steven Goldstein focused on the lack of justice from an 8-member court.
Yesterday, at the Cigna/Elliot 5K Road race in downtown Manchester, Sen. Kelly Ayotte revealed a level of trust in Donald Trump’s ability to choose a qualified Supreme Court justice when questioned by a Manchester voter.
Watch her response:
Ayotte, who has repeatedly ignored the vast majority of Granite Staters who want her to do her constitutional duty and support moving forward with hearings and a vote for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, seemed unconcerned with the particulars of Trump’s judgement regarding the next Supreme Court justice, but said she’d looked at the list and thinks it’s a “good start.”
Even as GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump hits new lows in his campaign—from attacking Gold Star parents to suggesting gun violence as a way to stop Hillary Clinton—Republican senators continue to hold open the vacant Supreme Court seat for Trump to fill.
Yesterday People For the American Way held a telebriefing for members and supporters about the critical role the Supreme Court plays in 2016 and beyond, and how progressive activists can hold GOP senators accountable for their unconscionable blockade of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. PFAW’s Marge Baker, Drew Courtney, and Elliot Mincberg were joined by Public Policy Polling director Tom Jensen to discuss how to make the Supreme Court a winning issue in the election.
You can listen to the full telebriefing here:
The Constitution sets up an independent judiciary as the third branch of government, intended to protect people’s rights and to serve as a check on the power of the other two branches. Our nation’s charter tasks the president and the Senate with the job of selecting and vetting the people who would serve on those courts. President Obama has been doing his duty by nominating qualified women and men to serve as judges at all levels of the judiciary, including the Supreme Court.
But the GOP-controlled Senate is not living up to its constitutional responsibilities. While this has always been harmful to America, it is even more so with Donald Trump the presumed presidential nominee of his party.
Mitch McConnell and his party have slow-walked or outright blocked so many nominees that the number of circuit and district court vacancies has risen from 40 when they took over the Senate to 80 today. (There are also several vacancies for the Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.) In that same time, the number of vacancies formally designated as judicial emergencies has skyrocketed from 12 to 29. The Senate has not been allowed to vote on nominees who were thoroughly vetted and approved months ago by the Judiciary Committee with strong bipartisan support.
Yesterday, Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin went to the floor to draw attention to the problem. She noted that while the Senate GOP’s blockade of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland has been in the headlines, that has not been the case with the obstruction of lower court nominees.
She focused particularly on Seventh Circuit nominee Donald Schott, who not only has Democrat Baldwin’s support, but also that of his other home-state senator, Republican Ron Johnson. Schott would fill the nation’s longest circuit court vacancy, which has been open for well over six years. Since the Supreme Court takes so few cases, the Seventh Circuit is usually the last word on the meaning of the Constitution and federal laws for millions of people in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, and every day that goes by with that vacancy open hurts everyone in those states. Schott earned strong bipartisan support from the Judiciary Committee, which advanced his nomination to the full Senate four weeks ago. Baldwin noted that Schott also has the support of a bipartisan group of former Wisconsin Bar presidents. Saying that “the people of Wisconsin and our neighbors in Illinois and Indiana deserve a fully functioning appeals court,” Baldwin urged McConnell to finally allow votes on Schott and on all of the judicial nominees who have cleared the Judiciary Committee. Many of them have been waiting for more than half a year for a floor vote, with several having been approved by the Judiciary Committee last year.
But Republicans are fighting to keep vacancies open for as long as possible so that they will be filled by a President Donald Trump.
Donald Trump, who wants to make it easier for the government to punish media sources whose reporting he disagrees with.
Donald Trump, who has said that Latinos cannot serve effectively as unbiased judges.
Donald Trump, who would ban certain people from entering the country based on their religion.
Donald Trump, who has demeaned and humiliated women at every opportunity.
Donald Trump, who has used hate groups’ blatantly anti-Semitic imagery in his campaign.
Donald Trump, who has said he is considering firing all Muslim TSA agents.
With serious discussion among scholars, political figures, and Americans across the political spectrum on whether Trump’s extreme views amount to fascism, we need a strong, effective, and independent federal judiciary more than ever. Yet Senate Republicans are pulling out the stops to allow Donald Trump to move quickly to dramatically transform our judiciary from the Supreme Court on down.
The Senate GOP is abdicating their constitutional and moral responsibility to the American people and to our democracy.
Before it adjourned for the summer in late June, the Supreme Court issued a series of important decisions, or non-decisions, on affirmative action, immigration, abortion, and other subjects. As with the Court’s actions since last October, and particularly since the death of Justice Scalia in February, the most significant message sent by these developments is this: the elections this November will be absolutely critical to the future of the Court and to all our rights and liberties.
Start with immigration. The Court split 4-4 on the challenge brought by Texas and other states to the president’s executive actions that would have kept families together by shielding undocumented parents of U.S. citizens from deportation and, in total, helped more than 4 million people across the country. The result of the tie vote is that the lower court decision stands without any opinion by the Court, so that a nationwide injunction by a single Texas federal judge against the president’s orders remains in effect. Although the Court doesn’t reveal who voted how in 4-4 splits, it’s almost certain that the four votes against the orders came from Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas, joined by Justice Kennedy.
The Court was also split 4-4 in another important case in June, concerning whether Indian tribal courts can rule in civil cases (this one involving an assault) against non-tribe members who do business on Indian land. Altogether, the Court issued 4-4 non-decisions in five cases this term, the most in more than 30 years – a direct result of Republican Senators’ unprecedented blockade of the Garland nomination.
In several other important cases in June, Justice Kennedy sided with the Court’s moderates and produced positive decisions. This included a decision striking down an extremely restrictive Texas law that seriously and improperly limited women’s access to abortion by imposing draconian requirements on abortion clinics, as well as a decision approving a University of Texas plan to increase diversity on campus through affirmative action in admissions.
So does this mean that we have nothing to fear even if the Republican blockade of President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the vacant seat on the Court succeeds and a President Trump places a right-wing conservative on the Court, because Kennedy is voting with the Court’s four moderates? Absolutely not!
First, the immigration non-decision itself shows that Kennedy – the author of Citizens United and part of the 5-4 majorities in Shelby County and Hobby Lobby and so many other cases damaging our democracy and our rights – unfortunately sides all too often with the Court’s far right wing. That was also shown earlier this term when an apparent 4-4 deadlock forced the Court to essentially punt in the Zubik case, leaving the important question of access to contraceptives and employer religious questions in limbo until the Court again has nine members. Whether than ninth seat is filled by President Obama (or by President Clinton if the Republican blockade continues) or by a President Trump is critical.
In addition, the age of the current justices makes clear that there will likely be additional vacancies during the first term of the next president. Three justices will be above 80 during that time, older than the average retirement age for justices. The president who fills these vacancies could easily tip the balance of the Court, not just on the issues the Court dealt with in June, but also on the environment, money and politics, LGBT rights, voting rights, access to justice, protection from government abuse, and many more. And the answer to whether we have a Senate that is willing to do its job and actually hold hearings and vote on nominees, unlike the current Republican Senate that has refused to even hold a hearing for Judge Garland after more than 100 days, will be crucial as well. Election Day 2016 truly is judgment day for the Court and for all of our rights and liberties.
Last Monday, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that evidence found by police officers even after they stop someone illegally can still be used if the searches happen after the officers learn of an unrelated outstanding arrest warrant. In a particularly powerful dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained the dangers of the majority ruling, particularly for people of color.
In the case, Utah v. Strieff, a police officer investigating possible narcotics activity in a house decided to stop Edward Strieff, who left the house, even though there were no reasonable grounds for the stop, which made it illegal. The officer then ran a check on Mr. Strieff, found a warrant for a minor traffic violation, and arrested him on that prior offense. The officer then searched him, found illegal drugs, and charged him accordingly. Even though the Utah Supreme Court found that the evidence should have been suppressed because of the illegal stop, the Supreme Court reversed because of the prior unrelated warrant.
“The court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights,” Sotomayor wrote. “This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification and check it for outstanding traffic warrants – even If you are doing nothing wrong.” As she continued, “if the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant.” Justices Sotomayor and Kagan (who also dissented as did Justice Ginsburg) explained that this danger is far from hypothetical: federal and state databases show more than 7.8 million outstanding warrants, most of which are for minor traffic and other offenses. For example, in Ferguson, Missouri, which has a population of 21,000, there are 16,000 such outstanding warrants.
In a part of her dissent that she wrote only for herself, Sotomayor highlighted the problems that minorities face due to police stops. “For generations,” she explained, “black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’ – instructing them never to run down the street, always keep your hands where they can be seen, do not even think of talking back to a stranger – all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.” She added that people “routinely targeted by the police” are the “canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere,” She continued that “unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives.” Until the voices of these people “matter, too,” she concluded, “our justice system will continue to be anything but.”
The majority tried to minimize the impact of its ruling, stating that the stop was not a “flagrant” violation or part of a “dragnet” or “systematic or recurrent police misconduct,” but simply an “isolated instance” of an error by a police officer. Time and future cases will tell if Strieff will truly be an isolated case and if the Court will prevent abuse. Much will depend on the future votes of Justice Breyer, who joined the majority in the case, and of course the unfilled vacancy on the Court being held open by Republican obstructionism. But Sotomayor’s strong opinion was a remarkable and important statement that will hopefully help shape the future direction of the Court. As University of Chicago law professor Justin Driver put it, her dissent is “the strongest indication we have yet that the Black Lives Matter movement has made a difference at the Supreme Court--- at least with one justice.”
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.
Over the last few days, both the Washington Post and prominent constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe have joined the growing chorus of voices, including Republican as well as Democratic judges, making clear that eight justices are NOT enough for the nine-member Supreme Court, and that the continuing vacancy caused by Senate Republicans’ unprecedented refusal to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland for the vacant Court seat is unconscionable. As the Post put it, the continued vacancy has required the Court to “punt, duck, dodge and weave around contentious issues,” creating “dysfunction.” These problems are documented in more detail in the recent report by PFAW Foundation and the Constitutional Accountability Center, “Material Harm to our System of Justice: the Consequences of an Eight-Member Supreme Court.”
As the report explains, the continuing vacancy has already produced several 4-4 splits on the Court, leaving the contested lower court decision in place but setting no national precedent. In one situation, the result was that the Court could not resolve conflicting interpretations of federal law on loan discrimination in different lower courts, causing confusion and different rules for different people around the country. Specifically, as a result of this Supreme Court 4-4 split, people in some states can be required to get their spouse to co-sign a bank loan, while in other states, some right next door, that requirement is illegal.
In addition to several 4-4 splits, the continued vacancy has caused the eight-member Court to effectively punt several important cases for later review by a full Court, again leaving uncertainty and confusion as a result. For example, in the Zubik case concerning whether religious employers can effectively deny to their employees contraceptive coverage required by the ACA because of religious objections, the Court vacated conflicting lower court decisions and suggested that the government and the employers try to find a compromise and then go back to the lower courts, and the Supreme Court, if necessary. The continued litigation by some religious employers makes clear that future resolution by a nine-member Court will be necessary. But in the meantime, uncertainty about these important rights remains. As the report explains, the continued vacancy also appears to have decreased the number of important cases the Court has agreed to review next term starting in October, and makes it difficult for the Court to issue important temporary stay decisions in divisive cases where decisions must be made quickly, as in cases seeking temporary halts of executions or new election rules.
As a result, both Republican and Democratic-appointed judges and justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, and the late Justice Scalia himself, have explained that having a full complement of nine members is important for a fully-functioning Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed last week, commenting publicly that “eight is not a good number” for the Court.
And as the Post also explained, the Senate Republican leaders that are responsible for this problem “are doing more than ever to discredit themselves,” claiming that their blockade is about the non-existent “principle” that a vacancy that arises in an election year should be filled by the next president, contrary to history and the Constitution, while at the same time claiming that Republicans could find no “worse nominee” than Judge Garland. This is despite the fact that these very same Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have agreed that Judge Garland is “well-qualified.” As the Post concludes, this admission should “end the discussion”: Judge Garland should receive a hearing and should be confirmed. But if the Senate Republican blockade continues, the eight-member Court will only cause further harm to our system of justice.