Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to advance the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch for a seat on the Supreme Court. Judge Gorsuch’s nomination will now move to the floor thanks to the votes of all 11 Republican members of the Committee and without attracting a single Democratic vote.
Moreover, it became clear at today’s hearing that Judge Gorsuch will be unable to amass bipartisan support in the full Senate in the form of the 60 votes needed to secure a lifetime spot on the Court. This revelation led Republicans to cry foul, claiming that the 60-vote threshold is unnecessary and concluding that the only reasonable course of action is to change the Senate rules to require merely 51 votes to confirm a Supreme Court nominee.
But there is a reason that Senate rules require 60 votes for Supreme Court nominees: A lifetime position on the Supreme Court gives a person tremendous power to shape American society and to impact the lives of almost every American for a generation. The people wielding that awesome power should be able to garner wide, bipartisan support. Moreover, requiring that the President find a consensus nominee ensures that the Supreme Court isn’t packed with hyperpartisan ideologues bent on shifting the law too quickly in one direction or the other. At a time of eroding confidence in our political institutions, it is this independence from extreme political ideology that must remain the hallmark of the Supreme Court.
And, yet, the Republicans in the Senate are calling for a unilateral change to the rules by eliminating the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominations. Why would the Republicans eliminate a rule intended to promote stability and bipartisan cooperation? The answer is elusive.
This tactic would be reasonable, you might say, if President Trump had sought to nominate a consensus candidate who, while to the right of center, was not politically or ideologically extreme. But that isn’t what happened. President Trump relied solely on the counsel of ultraconservative special interest groups, including the Heritage Foundation, to select Judge Gorsuch. And the radical Judicial Crisis Network has funneled at least $17 million dollars into the battle over this Supreme Court seat. On that basis alone, Democrats have raised legitimate concerns about whether Judge Gorsuch harbors extreme views that make him a dangerous choice for the Supreme Court.
A review of Judge Gorsuch’s record provides even more support for Democrats’ concern. Before joining the bench, Judge Gorsuch criticized “liberals” for using the courts to vindicate their constitutional rights. And, while at the Department of Justice, Judge Gorsuch appears to have been deeply involved in the Bush-era policies related to torture and inhumane treatment of detainees. (When asked at his confirmation hearing about his role, however, Judge Gorsuch conveniently could not recall the details.) On the bench, Judge Gorsuch has displayed a shocking disregard for the rights of workers, women, and persons with disabilities.
Perhaps the move to eliminate the 60-vote threshold might be justified if Democrats had engaged in long-standing obstruction, making it clear that they would withhold support from any of President Trump’s picks. But that didn’t happen either. The Republicans have pushed Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation process through the Senate at a nearly unprecedented pace, after holding the seat open for over a year while they refused to hold a hearing on President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. And Democrats have made clear throughout the process that they have no intention of perpetually blocking President Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. In fact, Democrats have said that they would be open to voting for a Republican nominee whose record was less extreme and demonstrated a commitment to upholding the rights of all Americans.
This leaves only one explanation for Republicans’ threat to eliminate the one procedural safeguard that guarantees the stability of the nation’s highest court: Purely partisan politics. In their fervor to place a staunch ultraconservative ideologue on the bench, the Republicans are willing to throw away the credibility and stability of the Supreme Court. Their cynical and irresponsible move also sacrifices a meaningful check on the President at a time when oversight is sorely needed.
Democrats have every right to demand that our next Supreme Court justice protect the rights of all Americans. Republicans have a responsibility to listen to the Democrats’ concerns, engage meaningfully, and abide by the foundational rules of the Senate. But, as it stands right now, the Republicans are poised to cheat the American people out of the checks and balances that are vital to protecting their rights.