With an Unexpected Vacancy in the Supreme Court, Obama is Preparing for an All-Out Battle (Audio)

After news broke that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away over the weekend (February 13), social media exploded as debates about who should take the long-sitting conservative judge’s place raged. The 79-year-old joined the highest court in the land back in 1986 when he was appointed by then-President Ronald Reagan and he earned himself no shortage of supporters throughout his tenure, but in the days following his death, the voices of his critics seem to be the loudest. A staunch Republican, Scalia was outspoken against abortion, gay marriage, and an ardent supporter of an Originalist view of the Constitution. In such a view, the interpretation of the Constitution should match the context in which it was drafted; in other words, the Supreme Court should adhere to what the Founding Fathers meant at the time of the Constitution’s being written. As such, Scalia was a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, small government, and many other touchstones of what makes up political conservatism in the United States. Naturally, this led to his being in constant disagreement with President Obama and other liberal figures including Bill Maher who coincidentally just remarked on his HBO series Real Time February 12 on Scalia’s role in blocking Obama’s recent climate change initiatives. While discussing the Supreme Court’s denying Obama’s plan to address global warming, Maher exclaimed “how is anything supposed to get done in this country if it has to get by Scalia first?” Clearly a sentiment echoed by millions of liberal Americans, Maher’s query is now a moot point, and the stage has now been set for a political showdown.

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As it is a sitting president’s duty to nominate successors to vacant Supreme Court seats, Obama has vowed to present his nominee within weeks, but it may not all be so simple. Without mincing any words, the New York Times opened a February 14 report on the issue with “[a]n epic Washington political battle took shape on Sunday,” alluding to the fact that Republican senators have stated they will “refuse to act on any Supreme Court nomination by President Obama.” Citing the fact that Obama’s presidential tenure is nearing its end, Republicans are of the opinion that the President simply doesn’t have the time left to devote to the confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice. In a not-at-all surprising response, Senate Democrats began to cry foul, arguing that Republicans’ “refusal to even hold a hearing would amount to an outrageous act of obstructionism.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been the most vocal in the Republican sentiment and while nominating a new justice during a presidential election is not unprecedented, it does leave plenty of room for a heated debate about procedural processes in such extenuating circumstances. With the overwhelming majority of political energy being spent on November’s general election, the added tension surrounding the appointment of a Supreme Court justice is likely to add yet another layer of politically charged agitation to the campaigns of the presidential candidates currently duking it out in primary elections across the country – especially if Obama’s nominee turns out to be a woman or minority (or both).

In the 11 months until a new president takes his or her seat in the Oval Office, the Supreme Court will continue to operate as an eight-member body until a ninth judge is confirmed. According to NPR, this has implications that stretch into both the past and the future. “That means if the jurists tie 4 to 4, the ruling in the lower court would stand, an issue that could have implications for the president’s immigration and environmental initiatives; the availability of abortions; voting rights and redistricting; and affirmative action in higher education,” writes Carrie Johnson. If taking historical precedent into account, then a ninth judge should easily be elected into office far earlier than Obama’s final days in office. The record for the longest wait a nominee has waited to be voted on is 125 days, and Obama has around 340 days left. However, due to the current political climate already so divided against the backdrop of a forthcoming presidential election, one would be remiss to feel confident that Scalia’s replacement will take to the bench without some serious political infighting. Reports are already suggesting that the current vacancy in the Court may prove to be the longest in history, ensuring months of political entertainment at its best.

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