Today President Obama announced that Merrick Garland is his nominee to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. This pick is something of a surprise, given Garland’s reputation as a moderate, and most importantly, his age — Garland is 63, meaning he would likely spend only 10 or 15 years on the Court if he is confirmed.
Of course, he may not be confirmed, since Republicans have made clear that they will refuse to hold hearings or votes on any nominee Obama offers, and have said they’ll even refuse to meet the the nominee. Mitch McConnell reiterated that again today. So there’s a clear political strategy behind this nomination on the White House’s part.
But there’s also a way in which Garland could end up actually making it to the Court — not because the White House managed to outmaneuver Republicans, but because they decided that confirming him was the best of their options.
First, let’s look at the White House’s thinking. Of course they’re going to say that this decision was made purely on Garland’s merits, and politics never entered in to it, that Garland was picked because he’s eminently qualified, and he’s well-respected by both Democrats and Republicans. Garland may have all the admirable qualities Obama spoke of today, but it’s also true that he is the hardest pick for Republicans to oppose. He’s probably the most moderate of the names that were mentioned, and when you combine that with his age (and the fact that he’s a white man), Republicans won’t be able to say that Obama is trying to appoint some radical leftist who will pull the Court far to the left for the next 30 or 40 years.
That means that Garland is the one whose appointment most clearly portrays Republicans as obstructionists when they refuse to consider him. That will not only help Hillary Clinton when she argues that Republicans are unreasonable and irresponsible, but it will also put some vulnerable Senate Republicans in uncomfortable positions, particularly Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, all of whom face tough challenges in the fall. So while it may not have a transformative effect on the election, Garland’s nomination could, at least by a bit, increase the chances both that Clinton is elected president and that Democrats will be able to take back the Senate.
The White House is also probably assuming that Republicans will oppose Garland, as they’ve promised. Garland has already had a full career and this is doubtless his last opportunity to ascend to the Supreme Court, so he may have been more willing than other potential nominees to go through this process, with the small chance that he will actually be confirmed.
But might he actually be confirmed? The answer is yes. Here’s how it might happen:
- Hillary Clinton wins in November. Given that Donald Trump looks like he will be the nominee of the Republican Party, this looks like a strong possibility.
- Democrats take back the Senate. Democrats need a net gain of four seats in order to get to 50, which was about an even bet before; with Trump leading the Republicans, that looks even more likely.
- Democratic Senate leaders consider eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations. If Clinton were to win, Republicans could decide that they can live with an eight-member Supreme Court for four years, and simply refuse to confirm any Clinton nominee. If they do that, and if Democrats gain a majority, the Democrats would almost certainly get fed up enough to just take the final step and eliminate the filibuster for those nominations (they already eliminated filibusters for lower-court nominations in 2013). Indeed, they’re already considering it.
- Republicans return after the election and confirm Garland. If Clinton wins and Democrats take the Senate, Republicans will face a choice between Garland and whoever Clinton would nominate — and that person would probably be more liberal, and far younger. So Garland, a moderate who might only spend 10 or 15 years on the Court, would suddenly look like easily the best option. So before the next Senate takes office in January, Republicans would quickly confirm Garland and cut their losses.
Liberals are reacting with a decided lack of enthusiasm over Garland’s nomination, both because of his moderation and his age. For them, the best of all scenarios is that Garland’s nomination flounders, Hillary Clinton gets elected, and appoints a younger and more liberal justice. They might get their wish — if Republicans don’t figure out what’s most in their interests first.