President Barack Obama said he would name a new Supreme Court justice to replace Antonin Scalia, slapping down Republican demands for a delay and setting up a monumental election-year fight.
“I plan to fulfil my constitutional responsibilities,” Obama said Saturday, rejecting a chorus of right wing demands that he leave Scalia’s replacement to his successor.
The conservative justice, appointed to the lifetime post in 1986 by president Ronald Reagan, died unexpectedly in Texas on Saturday, 11 months before the end of Obama’s term. He was 79.
Scalia was a dependable conservative vote on the bench, opposing gay marriage, abortion and expanded healthcare.
Until Scalia’s death the nine-member court had five conservative justices and four liberals. With Scalia gone conservatives and liberals are equally balanced.
The prospect that Obama would name a liberal replacement — decisively tipping the court balance — has turbocharged an already divisive presidential election campaign.
Obama has already appointed two liberal Supreme Court justices, and a third would make him the most consequential president for the court since Reagan.
History would suggest that he will announce his choice within weeks.
– Senate approval needed –
The nominee would then go to the Republican-controlled Senate, where the candidate would need support from a majority of senators for confirmation.
Obama could choose a political centrist in the hope of winning over four Republican senators, enough to secure confirmation assuming all 44 Democrats and two independents also back his choice.
The US vice president would cast a deciding vote if needed.
Alternatively, Obama could nominate a more ideological figure that rallies the Democratic base but has no chance of being confirmed.
Republican leaders have made it clear they have no intention of approving Obama’s choice.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” the Senate Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.
“This vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
The US presidential election is set for November 8, and the next president takes office in early January. Under this scenario the Supreme Court would be one justice short for about a year.
– A “do nothing” Congress? –
Republicans’ most likely first line of defense is the Senate Judiciary Committee, which considers the nominee before the full Senate.
Committee chairman Chuck Grassley faces reelection in November, along with two other Republicans, meaning their actions will be under fierce scrutiny by Republican voters.
A misstep could result in a right-wing challenger entering the race.
If Republicans are determined torpedo Obama’s nominee, the committee may simply offer no opinion.
Previous Supreme Court nominations have withered as the committee has refused to act, leaving the process stuck.
If that happens, Obama indicated his willingness to put Republicans before the court of public opinion.
Obama’s White House has long sought to paint the Republican-controlled legislature as a “do nothing” Congress.
Months of White House hectoring about inaction over something as important as the Supreme Court could find favor with voters, many of whom already have a low opinion of lawmakers.
Insisting there was plenty of time for the Senate to consider his pick, Obama urged lawmakers to take their responsibilities seriously.
“They’re bigger than any one party. They are about our democracy. They’re about the institution to which Justice Scalia dedicated his professional life, and making sure it continues to function as the beacon of justice that our Founders envisioned,” he told reporters.
If hearings are held, all eyes will be on Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, a Senate Judiciary Committee member who clerked at the Supreme Court and whose profile could be significantly boosted by raking the nominee over the coals.
That could also result in the nominee withdrawing.
George W. Bush nominee Harriet Miers withdrew her name following intense scrutiny and criticism.
– High stakes –
The Supreme Court has played a major role in US politics in recent years.
The court halted a fiercely contested ballot recount in Florida in the 2000 presidential election, resulting in Republican George W. Bush taking office over Democrat Al Gore.
More recently it paved the way for non-governmental groups to pour money into election campaigns.
Last week the court — with Scalia’s backing — froze the implementation of a major White House effort to cut carbon emissions, after a Republican legal challenge.
If the Republicans thwart all of Obama’s efforts to appoint a new justice, and controversial legal cases that reach the Supreme Court end in a 4-4 decision, then lower court rulings stand.
That could have deep ramifications for cases coming before the court, which include a full hearing on the emissions reductions to immigration orders.