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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Senate needs to do its job and appoint new justice

The Supreme Court is an essential branch of United States government — it is responsible for interpreting the Constitution and determining whether laws uphold or violate it. On Feb. 13, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died at age 79 in a private ranch in West Texas, setting off a fierce battle over who will get to appoint the next Supreme Court justice.

The justice appointment process involves the president nominating a candidate, who then must be confirmed by the Senate in a majority vote, giving both the executive and legislative branches a say in the new appointment. Since Scalia passed away in an election year, many Republican leaders want to delay this process.

Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, for example, said that, “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” However, President Barack Obama will be president until next January, meaning the vacancy would not be filled for another year, which is utterly unacceptable.

The longest that the Supreme Court has gone without a justice is 391 days in 1969 during President Nixon’s term. Currently, Obama has 337 days left in office. This means the next president would have only two months after inauguration to nominate and get a new justice approved or this could be the longest Supreme Court vacancy in the history of the U.S.

Having only eight serving justices at a time could severely affect many cases brought to the Supreme Court. If there is a tie vote, then the decision of a lower circuit court would take effect, usually from a state court. However, when a case is sent all the way up to the Supreme Court, there is a reason for it. It is likely that a large group of people feel they have been denied their constitutional rights at the lower court’s decision, and such a long Supreme Court vacancy may prove devastating for them.

Justice Scalia was very conservative and a strict constitutionalist. He argued against abortion and gay marriage, and argued for fewer gun laws and the death penalty. Scalia believed that the Constitution was set in stone and that it should not change and evolve with the times. He tipped the scales 5-4 in favor of conservatives.

Now that the court is at a 4-4 tie between liberal and conservative justices, Obama may have the opportunity to tip the scales in the other direction by appointing a liberal justice, but with a Republican-controlled Senate, it’s highly unlikely that any nominee he puts forth will be accepted. They are certainly taking a risk, since the next president may be even more liberal.

Currently, Obama would have to nominate a moderate liberal in order to have any chance of him or her passing through the senate. If a Democratic candidate wins the 2016 election, however, and the Senate is also turned Democratic, they would be able to appoint the most liberal justice they could find. It seems the GOP will take the risk and wait for the elections, hoping for a Republican president, rather than do their jobs and fill the position with a qualified justice.

Hillary Clinton made a statement after Scalia’s death on Saturday, saying, “The Republicans in the Senate and on the campaign trail who are calling for Justice Scalia’s seat to remain vacant dishonor our Constitution. The Senate has a constitutional responsibility here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons.”

Obama has announced that he will nominate a new justice, but the rest is up to the Senate.

“There’s plenty of time for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote,” Obama said. “These are responsibilities I take seriously, as should everyone.”

This issue will be a hot-button topic for the rest of the election season, with GOP candidates arguing to put off the appointment for an entire year and Democratic candidates supporting filling the position quickly. The most important task at hand should be to find a new, qualified justice to appoint to the Supreme Court. Political polarization should not halt the entire judicial process, but this is seems to be the unfortunate state of our government. 

Follow Apoorva Bhaskara on Twitter.

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