“EIGHT,” JUSTICE Ruth Bader Ginsburg said last month, “is not a good number.” Since Antonin Scalia died, leaving a vacancy on the Supreme Court and depriving it of a deciding ninth vote, the justices have had to punt, duck, dodge and weave around contentious issues. Justice Ginsburg provided a timely reminder that the judicial branch of government is not properly functioning, and has not been for months.
Meanwhile, even as Justice Ginsburg subtly prods the nation’s politicians, those responsible for this dysfunction — Senate Republicans — are doing more than ever to discredit themselves.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continues to insist that the GOP blockade of Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, is “about a principle, not a person.” The crucial principle that apparently justifies hobbling the Supreme Court is the newly invented notion that the president should be able to fill court vacancies during only three-quarters of his elected term.
Mr. McConnell’s discovery of this principle has been as obvious a case of situational ethics as has ever been seen in Washington. Indeed, from the beginning, it was clear Republicans had more than proper procedure on their minds. “The next justice could fundamentally alter the direction of the Supreme Court and have a profound impact on our country,” Mr. McConnell warned in March.
Now Mr. McConnell has gone a step further, making his opposition not simply cynical but patently ridiculous. In interviews last week, Mr. McConnell argued that Mr. Garland is ideologically extreme. “I don’t think you could have a worse — from a conservative point of view, I don’t think you could have a worse nominee than Merrick Garland,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I would say, he’s a well-qualified, very liberal judge,” he told NPR.
It is absurd to claim that Mr. Garland, a nominee about whom many liberal groups are not excited, a judge whom Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) once called a “consensus nominee,” is the worst-case scenario for Republicans. Fellow judges from across the ideological spectrum effusively praise Mr. Garland. His work on the country’s second-most prominent court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has been careful and evenhanded. Mr. McConnell’s claims do not pass the laugh test — unless by “worst,” he means “most-qualified” and therefore most difficult plausibly to reject.
Mr. McConnell’s admission that Mr. Garland is “well-qualified” should end the discussion. The president gets to nominate; the Senate gets to object in extraordinary circumstances, but has an obligation to confirm if nominees are, as in this case, obviously qualified and within the mainstream of judicial thinking. No other arrangement can keep the system working. But the majority leader obviously has other considerations in mind.
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