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“The Unprecedented ‘Precedent'”: What Kind Of Dictator Must Obama Be To Oppose 80 Years Of “Standard Practice”?

How can you tell the seemingly unanimous position of the Republican Party that President Barack Obama should not be permitted to select the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s successor is motivated by something other than apolitical concern for the republic? You can start by looking at the ways that their main talking point – that such an election-year nomination hasn’t been confirmed in 80 years – is both factually incorrect and more broadly intellectually dishonest and a novel reinterpretation of “precedent.”

Eighty years has become a truly magical number in the day since Scalia shuffled off this mortal coil. “The fact of the matter is that it’s been standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during a presidential election year,” Republican Senate Judiciary chair Chuck Grassley said. Standard practice! What kind of dictator must Obama be to oppose 80 years of standard practice? “It has been over 80 years since a lame duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in the Republican presidential debate Saturday night; “We have 80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz echoed.

Flim-flam and jiggery-pokery.

Just as a factual matter, as has been widely noted, Reagan nominee Anthony Kennedy was (unanimously) confirmed to the court in February 1988 – not only an election year but a year in which Reagan was term-limited and could not run again. So just right off, the talking point is wrong. (Grassley, by the way, broke with his own self-professed “standard practice” and voted to confirm Kennedy.)

But! But! But Kennedy was nominated in 1987, so he doesn’t count, right? When was the last time in history that a president nominated someone for the court in an election year and the Senate confirmed them? That would be Franklin Roosevelt nominating Frank Murphy, then the attorney general, on Jan. 4, 1940, and the Senate confirming him 12 days later. So that was 76 years ago, which is still less than the enchanted “80” benchmark.

So where does the 80-year figure come from? So far as I can tell – through a cursory bit of Googling – it originated with a National Review post from Ed Whelan at 5:32 p.m. yesterday, some minutes after the news of Scalia’s untimely demise started to spread around the country. Points to Whelan for quick research but note how he phrased his item: “It’s been more than 80 years since a Supreme Court justice was confirmed in an election year to a vacancy that arose that year, and there has never been an election-year confirmation that would so dramatically alter the ideological composition of the Court.” He was referring to Benjamin Cardozo, “confirmed in March 1932 to a vacancy that arose in January 1932,” 84 years ago.

Note the rhetorical evolution from Whelan’s careful phrasing (“… in an election year to a vacancy that arose that year”) to the more widely promulgated talking point as expressed by, say, Grassley (“standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during an election year,” period) or Cruz (“80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year”).

Details, details, right? Do they matter? Well, yes, they do. Cruz, Grassley and anyone who repeats the assertion that there’s 80 years of precedent against confirming nominees in an election year is, in fact, wrong.

And the difference is important for a couple of reasons: First, imprecision reflects the questionable logic of the alleged precedent: that Obama’s “lame duck” status – lame duck traditionally means that his successor has been chosen, not that at some point in the future he’ll definitely be out of office – should deprive him and relieve senators of their constitutional duty. How better to justify this notion than by invoking tradition. But this is not a tradition of nonconfirmation in an election year (Kennedy was confirmed) or of presidents not nominating in an election year (Lyndon Johnson nominated Abe Fortas and Homer Thornberry in 1968) or of only confirming in an election year if the nomination came in the previous year (Murphy), but of not confirming in an election year when the vacancy occurred in that year.

That’s a much narrower standard than is being broadly bandied about. But it has to be or else the 80-year “standard practice” becomes less impressive: 76 years, or 48 years or 26 years.

The beauty of 80 years is that it sounds like an awfully big number – saying that the GOP is merely abiding by the “standard practice” of 80 years makes it sound routine, as if this is something that’s come up time and again over eight decades and is a settled matter. But since Cardozo was confirmed this narrowly drawn set of circumstances has arisen … once. Once! One instance in eight decades does not “standard practice” make.

Neither does it make 80 years of precedent. In fact it’s the opposite of precedent: The fact that 84 years ago Cardozo was nominated and confirmed to an opening that arose in an election year is actually precedent for – wait for it – considering an Obama nominee.

So if not respect for venerated precedent, what is going on here? Simple: The GOP neither wants to put another Obama nominee on the court nor allow its ideological balance to tip – especially when there’s a nontrivial chance that a year from now they’ll be able to replace Scalia with someone of like philosophy.

Does anyone think that if Scalia had died in December – before the election year – that the GOP reaction would be at all different? Or that in an alternate reality Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is telling President Mitt Romney that a Supreme Court nomination won’t be considered because he’s in the last year of his term?

The party is putting governing on hold in the name of political calculation. Republicans should own up to it and drop both the “80-year” talking point and the larger pretense of principle.

 

By: Robert Schlesinger, Managing Editor for Opinion, U.S. News & World Report, February 14, 2016

February 17, 2016 - Posted by | GOP, Mitch Mc Connell, Republicans, U. S. Supreme Court Nominees | , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I have already spoken about the need to move forward as our constitution warrants and as Scalia would have wanted as an originalist. But, I want a Supreme Court not defined as liberal or conservative. We need to keep politics out of the court and following normal process is the best action. To not follow normal process makes it political.

    Like

    Comment by Keith | February 17, 2016 | Reply


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