Comity is Dead – A Reflection on the Supreme Court Vacancy

Photo courtesy Envios, flickr

Photo courtesy Envios, flickr

We began this drama with Republicans suggesting there will be no action on any Obama nomination, followed by Democratic outrage.

I have been convinced all along that the Senate will not go down that path; it would be too easy for the Democrats to portray inaction as a willful refusal to do a task required by the Constitution, and thus even worse than the government shutdown.  That could cost the GOP control of the Senate in November, which will be decided by a handful of races, most likely the open seats in Nevada and Florida.

But a vote by the 54 GOP Senators to reject the nomination is more likely and far more justifiable. Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley signaled in his interview on Tuesday that he would consider holding hearings, at least hinting at that strategy.

THE 2016 ELECTION

Despite the many predictions that the court vacancy and deadlock will be a winning issue for Democrats this year, the issue may benefit Republicans just as much. In the opening primaries, the energy on the right was very high (see record turnout in Iowa), and conservatives have long emphasized the importance of the court majority as the last line of defense of their views.  And in general, the side that fears losing something it now has will always be the most passionate – and that is the conservatives. A new liberal justice could, among other things, overturn the Second Amendment right to gun ownership. But it seems unlikely that replacing Scalia with a like-minded jurist would lead to the end of abortion rights or other existing freedoms.

Republicans need to talk about the context behind their strategy. President Obama spent all of 2015 expanding the reach of the Imperial Presidency beyond anything Richard Nixon ever did. His foreign policy initiatives, such as restoration of relations with Cuba, are more defensible, given that presidents have their greatest power in foreign affairs, but he is on shakier ground with his domestic “orders.” His immigration policy and coal rules represent a much broader assertion of new powers, and are being challenged in the lower federal courts, with mixed results so far.

The president believes he has a mandate to enact his views, and despite losing a net of 69 House and 14 Senate seats since 2009, he has basically said, “I’m doing what I believe in because Congress will not act.”

The Senate response is then to reciprocate by voting no on any nominee, which is an explicitly granted constitutional power. It is the same kind of maximalist posture that the president has been employing for a year. So we can say with certainty that comity among the branches of government is dead.

Republicans also need to bring up the history. Democratic politicians insist that a president has the right to have a qualified nominee confirmed. Yet while there has been occasional mention of the 1968 rejection by a Democratic Senate of Abe Fortas, everyone seems to have forgotten the 1987 nomination of Robert Bork, which was rejected on ideological grounds by a Democratic Senate.

THE POLITICS OF SELECTION

If any nominee is doomed, that means candidates for the most prestigious and important legal body in the world are now being weighed and measured on how they will boost election turnout among certain groups – e.g., will Hillary Clinton get a larger boost in key states from an African American or a Latino nominee? That is a sad state of affairs indeed.

This has led many to predict that an African American woman will be chosen. Names floated include Attorney General Kamala Harris and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the federal District Court in D.C. And if it were up to me, I might push for Justice Leondra Kruger of the California Supreme Court, who used to work in the Obama administration.

However, the early leader in the speculation derby was Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who has the advantage of having been fully vetted by the Senate.

But court watchers have noted a problem. We know Senate Judiciary will ask for every conceivable piece of information on a nominee, in the hopes of finding something that will make a rejection easy. And the incumbent AG may have internal documents that directly address discussions of or investigations into Benghazi, the email servers or the Clinton Foundation.

If such documents exist, they might reflect unfavorably on Secretary Clinton, or might make it appear DoJ has shown favoritism in its investigations. Justice would then have to choose between withholding the material, giving the Senate a reason to reject Lynch, or releasing it, at a potential cost to Mrs. Clinton.

The other choice facing the president is moderate or firebrand? Most seem to think he will avoid the firebrands – no Sen. Elizabeth Warren types – as that offers the best chance of political success.

Choosing a nominee known to stand for overturning 5-4 decisions that absolutely infuriate the left, especially the Heller case establishing an individual right to gun ownership and the Citizens United decision on campaign spending, will help motivate and turn out core Democrats. But an activist nominee eager to overturn recent rulings could be more easily rejected as someone who lacked the appropriate judicial temperament.

The alternative approach would be to nominate a judge whose views are less known and/or more moderate, and who ideally has already been confirmed. While her defeat would be less motivating to the Bernie Sanders demographic, it would allow Democrats to attack the GOP all year as rejecting a qualified woman for purely political reasons (and perhaps throw in accusations of racism as well). That does seem like a winning strategy for the president. But who knows? If there’s one thing we can count on this election cycle, it’s that what we think we know turns out to be wrong.

Lawrence Molton is an attorney and political consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area.