President Barack Obama said Thursday that the current fight over his Supreme Court nominee could lead to a critical change in Senate rules and ultimately more politically polarized justices.
Obama used a hypothetical situation to explain why, a common tactic for law professors that was fitting because the president was speaking in a question-and-answer discussion at the University of Chicago Law School, where he once taught constitutional law.
In such a scenario, Obama said it’s acceptable for Senate Republicans to decide to vote against veteran federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland because they disagree with his qualifications or views on some issues.
“What’s not acceptable is not giving him a vote, not giving him a hearing, not meeting with him,” Obama said in response to a student’s question about his views on the Supreme Court confirmation process.
If you play that out, Obama said, a Republican could win the White House in November and Senate Democrats could decide to block Supreme Court nominees for four more years until the next president.
At that point, Obama said, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell , R-Ky., could decide to eliminate the filibuster rule for Supreme Court nominees, a rule that allows the minority party to block a confirmation vote with 41 votes. That would lead to people being more cynical about decisions coming down from the court.
“They’re already cynical because so many opinions just end up being straight 5-4, and it starts feeling like this is a partisan alignment but it gets much worse under these circumstances,” Obama said. “People just view the courts as an extension of our political parties, polarized political parties.”
A broken Senate judicial confirmation process, Obama said, will allow partisan polarization to be “seeping into the judicial system.”
Key Senate Republicans showed no signs of cracking Thursday on their position that the next president should fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley had a message for those hoping Iowa town halls over the past Senate recess would pressure him into holding hearings for Garland: Nope.
“I came away from those meetings feeling positive about the discussions that we’ve had both before and during the recess,” Grassley said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, hours before Obama spoke. “In other words, the recess reinforced my thinking.”
The Iowa Republican said he had 19 meetings in public or at companies or homes during the Senate’s recess over two weeks in late March. Grassley said national advocacy groups sent people to those town halls to pressure him to hold confirmation hearings, but the Iowans he met with said their concern was on both sides of the issue.
“They also told me they’re concerned the court makes politically based decisions about important constitutional issues, and there’s an understanding in mind that that isn’t just Democrat-appointed justices, that there’s some Republican-appointed justices that fall into that category,” Grassley said.
Grassley, as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, can control whether the Senate holds confirmation hearings for Garland. Grassley has said repeatedly that the next president should fill the court vacancy.
Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell , R-Ky., said earlier this week that Grassley has “been the Rock of Gibraltar” when it comes to resisting political pressure on the nomination.
McConnell, who has repeatedly said Garland would not get a confirmation vote, took to the floor to again praise Grassley and criticize Obama ahead of his remarks.
McConnell said that Obama would probably say that “the Constitution requires the Senate to have a vote on his nominee no matter what and thereby deny the American people a voice in the future of the Supreme Court.”
“In the words of The Washington Post fact-checker, he’ll be telling supporters a politically convenient fairy tale,” McConnell said.
The Obama administration doesn’t want the American people messing up this chance to make the most left-wing court in 50 years, McConnell said.
“This is just one more reason why the American people are lucky to have a Judiciary Committee chairman like Senator Grassley in their corner,” McConnell said. “Senator Grassley is passionate about giving the people of this country a voice in such a critical conversation.”
The administration appears to have a long-term strategy on Garland and hopes to intensify election-year pressure on enough Republican senators so that McConnell and Grassley give in.
A spokesman for Sen. Lindsey Graham said the South Carolina Republican has decided to meet with Garland, but remains opposed to the nomination moving forward. Garland continued his one-on-one meetings on the Hill and met Thursday with four Democrats: Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Chris Coons of Delaware and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
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