Sometimes I write my Monday posts on Saturday morning. It’s just a convenient time. And so right now I am at my desk, trying to marshal my thoughts, and rein in my emotions.
I am devastated by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It pains me that her last hours were spent thinking as much about the political chaos that would follow her death as about her family and a momentous life well-lived. Within an hour of her passing, tributes to her stunning career were already being drowned out by the fight over how and when she ought to be replaced. She deserved better.
And so do we, as a nation. I am enraged by the staggering hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues in the Senate. In 2016, after the death of Antonin Scalia, they refused to allow hearings or a vote on Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. It’s too close to the election, they said. The new President, whoever that may be, ought to have the opportunity to fill the vacancy. No, it’s not ideal to leave a seat on the Court open for so long, but this principle is worth the risk. Scalia died in March. His seat remained open for more than a year.
We are now forty-five days from another Presidential election. If the Senate were to follow McConnell’s “rule” on allowing new Presidents to choose a Court nominee, we might have to wait a total of five months. But now Republicans say, There is plenty of time for the current occupant of the White House to select a successor. It would be dangerous to leave the seat open for so long. Fucking unbelievable.
And yet, utterly predictable. Because the real problem is that we have allowed the Court to become completely politicized. The judiciary was designed and intended to be the least political branch of our government. It was supposed to be above politics, the institutional referee between the two elected branches. How far we have fallen from that ideal. Just today, a friend asked me if I could think of any other nation on the planet whose selection of judges was more riven by politics than ours. I couldn’t.
Like everything else in our system of government, in our whole society, all matters pertaining to the courts have become hyper-partisan. It is almost impossible to believe this now, but when Scalia’s nomination came to a Senate vote, he was confirmed 98-0. Ginsberg, as liberal as Scalia was conservative, won confirmation 96-3. I doubt we’ll see another vote like that on a Supreme Court Justice in this century.
Conservatives point to Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful nomination of Robert Bork as the start of the Court’s politicization. They claim that liberal Democrats, opposed to Bork’s ideology, misrepresented his record and vilified him. I remember that fight, which took place during my first semester in graduate school, quite differently. Bork’s very nomination was a provocation. Before becoming a candidate for the Court, Bork was best known as Richard Nixon’s Solicitor General, who, on what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” fired Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. He did this after Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest rather than carry out Nixon’s order. By the time of his Supreme Court hearings, Bork had long since revealed himself as a man who placed party before country, and as an advocate for unbridled executive power. He had been a villain to the Left for more than a decade. He never should have been nominated.
The fact is, it doesn’t matter who started the trend. It’s here now. And with McConnell’s brazen disregard for Constitutional norms in the case of the Garland nomination, it has been escalated to full-scale political war. If McConnell pushes through a Trump nominee before the election, or during a lame-duck session after it, and if, as polls currently predict, the election brings a Biden victory and a Democratic takeover of the Senate, I expect Democrats to attempt to change the structure of the Court in next year’s Congressional session. The Constitution says nothing about the number of justices who can serve on the Court, and it grants to Congress wide discretion in creating and maintaining all levels of the Federal Judiciary.
The problem with this is, as soon as the Democrats lose control of the Senate, the Republicans can change the composition again. And so on, until the Court becomes a caricature of itself, and one of the bedrock institutions of our republic is destroyed for all time.
One solution would be for Senate Republicans to recognize their own hypocrisy and refuse to vote on a Trump nominee. It would only take four of them, and I wish I believed that among the fifty-three members of the GOP Senate caucus there are four people of integrity. But I don’t.
That leaves few options and little hope for a near-term de-escalation of the Court battles. I am as pessimistic right now about the future of our system of government as I have ever been. Another legacy of this dark era in our history.
And I end this piece as I began it: with regret that the life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a gender pioneer, a brilliant jurist, a champion for the dispossessed, the disadvantaged, and the downtrodden, should be obscured by ridiculous and unreasonable political machinations.
We should be better than this. I grieve that we are not.