Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A different take on the selection of a new Supreme Court Justice

Jason Mazzone

Robin Bradley Kar (Illinois; visiting at Chicago) and I have posted a draft essay that may be of interest to readers who are following current debates over the appointment of a new Justice to fill the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia. As readers likely know, Republican Senators have taken the position that there will be no consideration of any Obama nominee. Yet the President has recently nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the Court.

Written in the context of the current standoff, our essay, Why President Obama Has the Constitutional Power to Appoint—and Not Just Nominate—a Replacement for Justice Scalia, offers a new take on the roles of the President and the Senate with respect to Supreme Court appointments.

In our assessment, much of the back and forth about the powers of the President and those of the Senate with respect to the Scalia vacancy overlooks a basic problem of separation of powers implicated by the plan of Senate Republicans. The problem is that the plan that would effectively delegate the sitting President's appointment authority to an unknown successor. Textual, structural, and historical considerations all weigh against the constitutionality of such a delegation of presidential authority with respect to Supreme Court appointments. The Republican plan thus appears problematic as a constitutional matter in ways not yet appreciated.

(Our historical analysis--itself probably worth the burden of a read--includes an exhaustive analysis of the entire historical record of Supreme Court appointments. In our judgment, discussion of that record has so far suffered from distortions by participants on both sides of the political aisle. We set the historical record straight.)

We hope that the new point we offer in the essay will at a minimum help clarify the constitutional stakes in the current standoff and lead to a more careful consideration of the prudential risks associated with an outright refusal to consider any Obama nominee.

Abstract after the jump.

After Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent death, politicians wasted no time before teeing up a political battle over his replacement. Republican Senators—led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—immediately announced that they will not consider or vote on any replacement nominees from the current President. In doing so, they have taken a position that may be constitutionally problematic in ways that have not yet been fully appreciated. Now that President Obama has nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, this problem requires greater attention.

The crux of the problem is that an outright refusal on the part of the Senate to consider any nominee from President Obama arguably works a delegation of an elected President’s Supreme Court appointment power to an unknown successor. While the Appointments Clause of the Constitution allows Congress to delegate a President’s appointment power in certain instances, it does not permit delegation with respect to Supreme Court appointments. Hence this delegation raises a potential problem of separation of powers. Historical practice also cautions against any effort to delegate to a future President the authority to nominate and appointment a member of the Supreme Court. We show that there are 104 cases in which an elected President has faced a vacancy on the Supreme Court and began the appointment process prior to the election of a successor. In all 104 cases, the sitting President was able to both nominate and, with the advice and consent of the Senate, appoint a replacement Justice. We explain why this is a better reading of historical precedent than any limited to consideration of the last 80 years. Hence, constitutional text, structure and history suggest that the Senate Republicans’ current plan not to act at all on any Obama nominee may violate the Constitution. Given this possible constitutional problem, there are also heightened prudential risks to the position Senate Republicans have taken.

None of this means that the Senate cannot vote against President Obama’s nominees on a wide range of grounds. The Senate also has broad discretion to determine its procedures for vetting a nominee. But the delegation problem identified in this Article provides a significant reason for Republican Senators, sworn to uphold the Constitution, to rethink their current position. They should instead consider and vote upon Garland or any other timely submitted nominee.

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