Good news travels fast, so you already know.
Scalia is dead, and good riddance.
Amidst the celebrations, I thought I’d throw out some initial thoughts about what this means.
First, Obama gets the opportunity to nominate a replacement. The Republicans may not like it, but here’s what the Constitution says:
He . . . shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law:
Second, he’s going to have a fight to do it. Already we’re seeing Republicans saying that he should hold off until the next president takes office. You can understand why they would say that, but bullshit. It’s almost a year until a new president takes office, and many cases to be decided. It would be irresponsible to leave the Court with a 4-4 split for the rest of the current term and the first half or more of the next term, especially when the sole reason would be to give a Republican the chance to do it.
I’m hearing people say that there is a tradition not to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in the last year of a president’s term, but that’s also nonsense. The occasion hasn’t come up that often, since there have been only 112 justices, but a quick look tells me that both Anthony Kennedy and Benjamin Cardozo were appointed in the last year of their appointing president’s terms.
Speaking of Kennedy, this is a huge demotion for him. If Obama does get a nomination confirmed this moves Kennedy from being the most powerful member of the Court, the perennial swing vote, to the guy who gets to decide whether there are three or four votes in dissent.
Still speaking of Kennedy, there are important cases that have already been argued this term, and important cases yet to be argued. One recent example is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, an attack on public employee unions; there are also abortion rights and voting and redistricting cases before the Court.
The way the Supreme Court works is that it takes a majority vote to reverse a lower court decision that comes to the Court. Thus, if the votes are split, 4-4, which is the way things stand now, the lower court’s decision is upheld. If you look at the list of the cases already argued and awaiting decision, or even the cases yet to be argued this term, you will see that in some of the cases it is a conservative challenging a liberal decision, in some it is a liberal challenging a conservative decision. As long as there is a 4-4 split on the court we can predict that there will be some lower court decisions that would certainly have been reversed with Scalia voting but that will likely be upheld without him as the fifth vote to reverse.
Finally, a few last points about a replacement. I don’t doubt that the Republicans will do what they can to block any nominee, and if they vote as a unit they have the votes. There is one absolutely clear point you can make about the Republican caucus in the Senate:
Looking at the list of Republican senators I have a hard time seeing how he gets 14 votes (counting Sanders and King as Democrats).
Nevertheless, let’s say he goes forward with an appointment. I don’t have any inside information on who might get the nod, but I think we’re looking at a youngish–fifty or younger–person who has already been through the judicial or Cabinet-level confirmation process. Wikipedia has a list of people who have been “mentioned” for Obama before that I’ll link to here, along with a list of his judicial appointments. Look to judges who were appointed unanimously or nearly so: there may be some Republicans who would be hard put to justify rejecting someone they’ve already voted to confirm once or twice. Finally, as a long shot, there’s always the possibility of nominating a senator. I’ve heard it said that almost any senator would be confirmed, but that was in earlier, less bitterly partisan times.
And, to imagine one particularly unlikely scenario that might have a certain Machiavelian appeal to it, how about Hillary Clinton? She’s a smart lawyer, but she has two things that might make her appeal to the Republicans: she’s old, so she won’t be in office as long as a different appointee, and she gives the Republicans what they want, the chance to run against Bernie in November. Ya think?
Of course, anyone’s guess is as good as mine. I wouldn’t be much on his chances of getting someone through, but someone who has a less dark view of the Republicans in the Senate might be more optimistic.