By Kat Riddler, Editor-In-Chief
President Donald Trump announced his nomination for Supreme Court justice the evening before The Current Student Newspaper’s What’s Current Wednesday series about Trump’s impact on the Supreme Court. The timeliness and importance of the selection helped fill Century Room C of the Millennium Student Center with people who came to hear Barbara Graham, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, lead a discussion about the credentials of the nominee, the history of the justices, and the importance of the nominee in comparison to political influences.
Graham first discussed how the Supreme Court justice vacancy occurred when Justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13, 2016. Usually the process of appointing a new justice begins with the president nominating an individual, the Senate Judiciary Committee checking the individual’s background and credentials, and the nominee then going to a hearing with the Senate. A nominee may withdraw, but after the hearing, the committee takes a vote on whether or not to recommend the approval of the full Senate. Even if all of the individuals on the committee oppose the nominee, the nomination is traditionally sent to the full Senate with the recommendation to reject the appointment of the nominee. There is then a debate on the Senate floor led by the chair of the Judiciary Committee. A filibuster that requires 60 votes to end debate (aka cloture) may take place, but if there is no filibuster, the next step is a vote that requires a simple 51-vote majority to approve the nominee.
After Scalia’s death, then-President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the vacancy in March. The Republican majority in the Senate refused to meet with the nominee, halting the entire nomination process until after the incoming president would be elected and in office January 20. Refusal to meet the nominee began before President Obama even made a nomination, forcing the Supreme Court to operate without all nine justices for 11 months.
Graham flawlessly moved on to explain why the Republican majority Senate would want to refuse to meet with any nominee: politics. There are nine Supreme Court justices, and Scalia’s seat was the majority tipping point for the Supreme Court. Four of the justices were appointed by Democratic presidents and four were appointed by Republican presidents. Since there is a Republican president and Senate, it seemed likely that the president would nominate a conservative who would side more with the previous justice’s political views. Trump’s nominee is Neil Gorsuch, who is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit Court in Colorado. Gorsuch would be the youngest justice on the court at age 49. This is significant since the appointment is for life, and a younger justice would likely serve for a longer period of time.
One of the handouts provided at the event was an article by Darla Cameron from the Washington Post. The handout stated that Trump’s original list of potential nominations contained 21 names, and “Researchers attempted to measure the likelihood that each potential Trump nominee would be the most Scalia-like of the group. Gorsuch was ranked second.”
Some were concerned with Gorsuch’s age. Since justices serve lifelong terms, he could possibly serve on the court for a long time influencing policy decisions. Graham agreed that it is potentially a long time to serve, but she said that only about 7,000 to 8,000 cases are appealed to the Supreme Court each year. The Supreme Court only takes about 75 of those cases. Graham pointed out that the lower court appointments from the president are important to the overall system as well. Graham said, “The likelihood that these cases are going to the Supreme Court are very slim. That’s why lower court decisions are important in the federal system.”
The ending question posed by Graham was whether or not Democrats should block Trump’s nomination for Supreme Court justice. Graham said that some believe there could potentially be no checks and balances with a Republican president, House of Representatives, Senate, and also a Republican majority in the Supreme Court. Trump has told Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to “go nuclear” to approve the nominee. This move would mean that the filibuster stage would be skipped and the decision would go immediately to a Senate vote, which the Republicans control with 52 seats to approve the nominee, without opposition in the cloture step. Students who attended the discussion argued back and forth over whether Democrats should fight the nomination process as the Republicans did for President Obama’s nomination. Timothy Lewis, PhD candidate, political science, said, “You are replacing a conservative vacancy with a conservative judge. You’re not gaining or losing anything.”
The next What’s Current Wednesday discussion will be on March 1 in MSC room 316 in collaboration with The New York Times and the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ Community Outreach and Engagement Office.