The bitter battle between Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee over President Obama’s forthcoming nomination to the Supreme Court intruded into a public hearing Wednesday featuring Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee’s top Democrat, used his opening statement at the Justice Department oversight hearing to lambaste Republican panel members for meeting behind closed doors last month to decide that they would take no action on an Obama nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
“Our hearing today is on the Justice Department, but what looms large on the horizon is whether this committee will do its job to fairly consider the next nominee to the Supreme Court,” Leahy said. “I hope that we will do our job, for the good of this country, for our entire justice system.”
Of the private meeting, held Feb. 23 in the offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Leahy said, “Americans should be able to see their government in action. They should know whether we are acting on their behalf and keeping their interests, not partisan politics, at the forefront of everything. … It’s a dereliction of our constitutional duty. More importantly, though, it denies the American people the chance to participate in a public discussion of the nominee.”
Leahy’s statement was greeted with a quick rebuttal from Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been subject to withering Democratic attacks for leading the Supreme Court blockade. Grassley called the remarks “contrary to normal oversight” and noted that a more “full-blown debate on this issue” is expected at a Thursday business meeting of the committee — its first since Scalia’s death.
Grassley dismissed Leahy’s criticism of the private meeting, saying it was not unusual for members of a party to meet privately: “I assume that the Democrat members have their caucus to talk about things,” he said. “I’ve never been invited to a Democrat caucus, and I don’t think that Democrat caucus is open to the public.”
In previous floor remarks responding to Democratic attacks, Grassley noted the 2013 decision of the Democratic majority to pursue the “nuclear option” to advance judicial nominations by a simple majority vote was made in a closed-door party caucus meeting.
Lynch did not mention the Supreme Court vacancy in her opening statement or in the earliest portion of her questioning. The attorney general had been widely discussed as a possible Supreme Court nominee, but The Washington Post reported Monday that she was no longer under White House consideration. Lynch on Tuesday issued a statement saying she had taken her name out of consideration.
Later in the morning hearing, inside a packed hearing rooms, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told Lynch “you would have made a great Supreme Court justice” then asked her if “a functioning Supreme Court matters to the Department of Justice.”
“It certainly matters to the executive branch and the Department of Justice,” she said.
Schumer pressed on whether an eight-member Supreme Court, deadlocked on key decisions, might “paralyze things or just put them on hold” in the context of federal investigations.
Investigators would evaluate each case on an individual basis, Lynch said, but added: “There are times when they would not be able to proceed. . . . I think people want clarity on those important legal issues.”
Otherwise Wednesday, Lynch addressed a variety of issues bearing on the Justice Department — including the legal status of the White House efforts to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, the pending investigation into the private email server used by Hillary Clinton during her time as Secretary of State, and the pending litigation with Apple over efforts to access an iPhone used by one of the shooters involved in December’s San Bernardino, Calif., terror attack.
“We do not want a back door into Apple or anyone else’s technology,” Lynch said, defending the government’s posture.