Advice & Consent 17: The two-month-long podcast that may last five years?

The show that should have lasted a couple of months during a relatively controversy-free set of hearings may now be relevant for four more years? The ragtag gang of the usual suspects rifles through their nonexistent agreement to figure an out before discussing the latest revelations from Republicans telegraphing more stonewalling less than one week before the election…
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Merrick Garland at 232 days

Today as we record the show (11/3) marks day 232 since Judge Garland’s nomination to fill Justice Scalia’s seat. We are about at the 7½ month mark since his nomination on March 16, 2016.

GOP Senators are telegraphing they may shut down HRC nominees – a flip flop from their position of let the next President decide…

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) says no SCOTUS confirmations for a President Clinton. Sight unseen.

Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. John McCain say similar/parallel things.

Let’s pull a Rubio and dispel with the notion that Sen. Cruz doesn’t know what he’s doing… he knows exactly what he’s doing!  What is the truth behind the “longstanding” history of the Court operating shorthanded?

Adam: Changing the size of the court (including the lower courts, mentioning them for Lena’s sake) for partisan and/or ideological reasons is basically saying “Yes, we’re creating a constitutional crisis.”  The first time the size of the courts was changed for partisan reasons was the first time the government shifted partisan control, with the Jeffersonian Republicans defeating the Federalists in 1800.  In a lame duck session, the Federalists vastly increased the size of the federal courts and John Adams appointed and the Senate confirmed a host of new judges.  Jefferson refused to seat these judges, creating a constitutional crisis leading to Marbury v. Madison.

The second time the size of the judiciary was changed because of partisan/ideological reasons was when President William Henry Harrison died right at the beginning of his presidency in 1841.  John Tyler succeeded him (Tippecanoe and Tyler too).  This precipitated a constitutional crisis because Harrison was the first Whig president, and the Whigs did not have much of a coherent platform besides not liking either Andrew Jackson or Martin Van Buren, and Tyler was not a powerful politician in that party, especially when measured against the likes of Henry Clay.  These fissures in the governing party deepened into crisis because Harrison was the first president who died in office, and he died barely a month into office.  There was no precedent for whether the Vice President just became an acting/caretaker president in such a case or whether s/he was a new president.  Tyler set the precedent that the VP assumes the full presidency in such a case, but the Congress at the time wouldn’t accept him and did not confirm his nominees.  But even Tyler’s nominees got votes on the Senate floor and eventually Tyler got a confirmation.

The third and last time the size of the judiciary changed for partisan/ideological reasons was in 1865-1868.  No one would deny that this was a constitutional crisis.  President Lincoln was assassinated just after his second term began and his newly sworn-in VP Andrew Johnson became president.  Johnson, like Tyler, was coming into office following the first president from a new party and wasn’t a grandee of that party (and wasn’t really part of the party at all).  Unlike the Whigs, though, the Republicans had a clear platform on the issue of reconstruction (the extent to which Lincoln agreed with that platform is less clear) and weren’t ready to cede any power to Johnson.  No one would deny that this was a time of constitutional crisis.  The Civil War had just ended.  A large chunk of the nation was under military occupation.  There was a new president who had very little power other than what was explicitly granted him in the Constitution, including the power to nominate judges, and there was a united–and radical–Congress opposing him.  Finally, we had a Supreme Court whose most momentous decision to date, Dred Scott, had been a catalyst for the Civil War, highlighting how important judicial ideology was. These factors would lead Congress to decrease the number of justices each time a justice retired, denying Johnson the chance to appoint justices.  The year Johnson left office and Ulysses Grant took over, 1869, Congress reset the number of justices at nine where it’s been ever since.

Of course, there was a fourth attempt to change the size of the judiciary for partisan or ideological reasons occurred in 1937, when the Lochner-era Supreme Court stymied the New Deal.  Everyone listening probably knows about this from their history class, so there’s no need for detail.  There are some myths about this time in history, but what is undisputably true is that one justice reversed himself on the issue of the New Deal’s constitutionality by the time the next case came before the Court and then a bunch of justices died or retired, letting FDR pack the court in the time-honored way, so the constitutional crisis withered away.

Tim: The size of the Court has fluctuated based on the Judiciary Act of 1789 (and its amendments). Last episode I talked about the blockade of the President’s nominee as revealing a bug in the system that has been covered over for centuries by good behavior and tradition. Rules dictate the process but these norms of the Senate hearing, debating and voting on nominees “are so longstanding and accepted that they have the status of formal rules — until one party decides to break them.” (hat tip to Paul Waldman in the WaPo for that). POTUS nominates, Senate considers and votes. With the Senate deviating and electing them out serving as the only solution is an imperfect solution. Elections every 6 years are a bad way to police this.

Lena: Precisely. Last time we changed the number of justices, there were 37 states. If this was EVER the argument, it could have occurred in February. And to really underscore what Adam said, it takes Congress to do something about changing the numbers. Or I guess I should say, that’s the way that our Constitution and history has had that happened. It’s rather cowardly to just let the number of justices dwindle over time because Senate leadership refuses to consider anyone to the Court. I mean, they way that Senate Republicans are getting things done is by not doing anything which then results in the withering and shutting down of things like our judiciary. This really isn’t acceptable.

Also, because Hamilton: See Geof Stone’s piece on how partisan complete obstruction is. http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20161103/ISSUE07/161109954#utm_medium=email&utm_source=ccb-morning10&utm_campaign=ccb-morning10-20161103

What would a multi-year shorthanded court mean for SCOTUS in the short and long term?

Tim: It’s a disaster. The Court can’t maintain the workload shorthanded. The Court also cannot continue with ideological deadlocks that are caused by the GOP Senate’s blockade.

Lena: I don’t want to think about it. It minimizes the Court and possible will take a generation to restore and regain legitimacy, if it does. We need a ninth decisive vote.

Not surprised that I’m going to talk about how understaffed the federal judiciary is at all levels. 114 vacancies current (96) and known future (18), with 38 judicial emergencies.

  • Fun fact: there were 12 judicial emergencies in 2015 when Republicans took over the majority in the Senate.
  • Another fun fact: more than 11% of federal judiciary is vacant. At this time in President George W. Bush’s term in office, it was 4.3%.

So, everyone’s focused on SCOTUS – and I don’t discredit that. But our lower courts are also getting shut down. The next President will likely have well over 110 vacancies to fill on her first day. There are only 870 authorized judgeships. Justice at ALL levels is going to be compromised, delayed. This isn’t how our government is supposed to work.

The President needs to be able to nominate and appoint people.

Congress, and here the Senate, needs to take action.

And the Judiciary needs staffing. ASAP.

Adam:  Sometimes finality is really necessary even if the final judgment is a horrendous miscarriage of justice.  What if the Supreme Court had said about slavery/segregation/Japanese internment/school integration/abortion/marriage equality “gee, we dunno.”

If the Dems (hypothetically) take the Senate is there any scenario where they don’t go for the nuclear option if there is still an open seat after the next Congress comes to session?

Tim: Get out your geiger counters and lead-lined suits. Barring an unlikely reversal by GOP Senators, this goes nuclear and the politics get ugly. Maybe impeachment hearings for Chuck Schumer?

Lena: The only question is when. But only after there’s been even worse obstruction. Because, we’re gluttons?!

Whither Merrick Garland? After a bruising campaign do we foresee the Dems and GOP look to avoid immediate conflict and confirm him in the lame duck session, keeping the powder dry for the next opening?

Tim:

  • Evidence of maybe yes:
    • Former Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe suggests the right would be pragmatic about confirming Garland (1947 podcast)
    • White House says Garland will remain nominee in lame duck (Talkmedianews)
    • Senators like Jeff Flake and Orrin Hatch suggest an HRC win might mean the most conservative option remaining is Merrick Garland
  • Evidence of no, this gets ugly: basically everything else
    • Pressure from the left to go more liberal and claim mandate from election
    • Pressure from the right to dig in and maintain “Scalia seat”
    • Aforementioned comments from Sen. Burr
    • If the Senate stays with the GOP, the GOP will undoubtedly claim it as a mandate from the people that it’s a check on a President HRC and use that as its reasoning to obstruct.

Lena:

  • I hope so. Serves most people’s best interests.
    • Rs aren’t united on this.
    • Levers – 1st Grassly, 2nd McConnell
      • Sen. Grassley has said holding a hearing is too expensive. But he’s bragging about other hearings he is going to hold.

Adam

Yes. I think the GOP would love to find a way out. I’m not sure that Republicans have that luxury. The forces of extremism coming from Fox, Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, etc that led to Trump are still there. Also, Boehner said, “that’s enough. I’m out.” Maybe that happens in the Senate

Let’s cover the HRC thing next show… if it’s still relevant

HRC criteria for a SCOTUS Justice includes graduation from a “top 5 law school” – elitist or pragmatic? (cough cough elitist)

[Adam note: This was criteria selected by the writer, not by the Clinton campaign]

Tim: If this is a real thing, then I have one name: Thurgood Marshall. [If it’s not, let’s drop it from the rundown on the show]

Lena: Both? Definitely elitist. But I think it’s an interesting point to bring out for people.

  • A maybe? Less elitist speculative list: http://ijr.com/2016/07/662707-clinton-insiders-list-potential-supreme-court-nominees-the-top-pick-will-make-obama-very-happy/

If the GOP (hypothetically) retains the Senate is there any scenario where (hypothetical) President Clinton can get a nominee hearing and vote? Would this be more palatable if the Republican Senate at least held hearings or (!!) a vote on her potential nominees but telegraphed they’d be voted down each time?

Tim: I would love this to be about substance. If the GOP chooses to vote down HRC or BHO nominees on substance, so be it. But they strike me as being more politically craven or even worse cowardly. If the country *really* supports opposing these nominees, shouldn’t these Senators proudly to proclaim the reasons for their opposition using the forum of hearings and votes!? Clearly not.

Lena: Agree, substance would be lovely. Optimistically think they’ll have to do what they can to appear “reasonable” so maybe a few get through. But really… I think more has to be done procedurally to make sure any delays on nominees requires Senators to go to the floor to talk it out – actually say why they won’t return a blue slip, make Senators actually filibuster with words not the threat of it.

Adam: I think just like shutting down the government (the executive branch), eventually, this will become an issue of political survival. At a certain point, Clinton would make this a huge issue and would win if Republicans refused to hold a hearing or an up-or-down vote. “Vote them up or vote them down, but vote” has always been a popular message and the Senate will be forced to act. Republicans know, however, that once the process starts, the nominee becomes more popular (unless you’re Robert Bork), so I think that Republicans know that once they start holding hearings, they won’t be able to vote against nominee after nominee for a full 4 years

With the likelihood that the GOP will take control of the Senate in 2018, do we foresee any Justices taking an early retirement?

Adam: I’m going to let bygones be bygones about whether retirements should have already happened in 2014. Of course they need to happen now.

Tim: I’ve always thought Justices get to retire when they want to but now that we see the “normal rule” of President gets elected, gets to nominate an open seat and Senate holds a hearing and votes is seemingly no longer operable, so perhaps Justices need to be more strategic and mindful of when to end their time on the bench. I hate that should be the case now.

Lena: Depends on the President, of course, but I think there may be a few eyeing this.Chief Judge Garland’s languishing nomination may factor into their calculus.

A happier note to end the show…

Congratulations to retired Justice John Paul Stevens on seeing his beloved Cubs win the World Series for the first time since he was… well the 96 year old SCOTUS alum never saw his Cubs win since it took 108 years for them to do it.

Programming note… we’ll be back next Thursday after the election to read the tea leaves on initial post-election statements from the President-elect, the current President and key Senators as we start the lame duck session.

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