I know this is a waste of time and words, but here goes nothin’…
Yesterday we got the news that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 86 and already being treated for enough maladies to kill a normal human being half her age, has pancreatic cancer. Treatment is going well, we are told, and Ginsberg isn’t even cutting back on her schedule.
Nonetheless, the proverbial writing is on the wall. Sheer will only can accomplish so much. If I participated in “dead pools,” Justice Ginsberg would be at the top of my list, even ahead of soon to be 103-year-old Kirk Douglas. Though she is apparently determined to hang on to her SCOTUS seat if it means that she will finish her tenure in a box that signals “yes” and “no” like poor Captain Pike in that “Star Trek” episode, I would be stunned if there isn’t a vacancy on the court in the near future. That will mean that President Trump will have an opportunity to appoint a conservative justice to replace the most liberal voice on the current court, a result that will spark panic from the Left and delirious joy from the Right. If this happens after January, 2020, it will also create an integrity test for Mitch McConnell.
That is, it should.
When Antonin Scalia died on February 16, 2016, President Obama appointed moderate liberal judge Merrick Garland to replace him. McConnell, however, the GOP Senate Majority Leader, announced that the Senate would not consider the nomination, debate it, or vote on it. He concocted a rule that when a Supreme Court vacancy occurs in the last year of a Presidential term, it should not be filled until after the November Presidential election. The supposed justification for this was that SenatorJ oe Biden had once made a similar suggestion. Basing any policy or rationale on what Joe Biden says is like using the spontaneous utterances of Tourettes sufferers as life guidance, but never mind: Mitch was gambling that a SCOTUS vacancy would bring more Republicans to the polls than Democrats, and that the Garland nomination would eventually be moot.
The gambit was legal but unethical, but then, that’s Mitch. It was also stupid: Garland was no Scalia, but he was far more moderate than some of Obama’s other options, and if Hillary Clinton had won, as looked like a sure thing in January, she was likely to nominate a far more extreme progressive judge. But in the manner that has hooked suckers and created gambling addicts for centuries, Mitch’s long-shot bet paid off. Trump won; Neil Gorsuch replaced Scalia, and Merrick Garland joined Samual Tilden in the “What If?” Hall of Fame.
If RBG leaves the Court or this vale of tears in 2020, however, Mitch should find himself hoisted by his own petard. By his own words, that new opening on the Court should not be filled by President Trump’s choice unless Trump is re-elected in November; the public should have the opportunity to include the composition of the Supreme in their calculations regarding who to vote for. So declareth Mitchi n 2016, as progressives and Democrats screamed and ripped their garments,
Having created a principle and a precedent, Senator McConnell should stick to it. The problem wasn’t that his theory in 2016 was indefensible in theory–it is. The problem just that it was disingenuous. Mitch wasn’t interested in fairness or democracy, just expedient politics. Thus it comes as no surprise that McConnell has told his party members that if there is a Supreme Court vacancy, he will move to confirm a conservative nominee so fast it will break the sound barrier.
He should not, however. Doing so may be good old fashioned hard-ball politics, but it will also be a lost opportunity to start repairing a broken legislative branch that McConnell played a major part in breaking. Such a cynical reversal of his own stated “principles” will also make the public less trusting than they already are of the motives, honesty and integrity, not just of Mitch, but of the their elected officials and government. Our democracy can’t take much more distrust and cyncism. Democracy breathes trust.
Who knows? Maybe Mitch will hit the jackpot a second time. Maybe the delay will backfire, with more outraged Democrats being attracted to the polls than activated conservatives. Nevertheless, Mitch McConnell has an ethical obligation to treat the next SCOTUS vacancy during the final year of a Presidential term exactly like he did the last one, in the name of integrity, fairness, process, consistency, trust, and the health of our Constitutional system.