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By Miriam Raftery

March 20, 2016 (Washington D.C.) – To fill the vacancy left on the Supreme Court by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, President Barack Obama has nominated Merrick Garland, a judicial moderate supported overwhelmingly by both Republicans and Democrats when he was appointed to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1997.  But in a move unprecedented in U.S. history, Senate leader Mitch McConnell has said Republicans will refuse  to allow hearings on any Garland or any nominee made by President Obama for the 11 months left in his term.

Judge Garland is currently Chief Judge on the Court of Appeals and has a law degree from Harvard University. He is also a former prosecutor who secured convictions in the Oklahoma City bombing case.  He has tended to render conservative decisions regarding criminal defendants, but has been more liberal on civil rights and environmental regulations. 

Obama rejected calls from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing to appoint a member of a racial minority or a judge with a strong progressive track record. Instead he chose a jurist with impeccable legal credentials and a history of respecting the law, not engaging in judicial activism.  In so doing, he no doubt hoped to dissuade Republicans from taking a nakedly political stance to block any nominee, even one they previously supported. 

The President, in a press conference at the White House Rose Garden, stated, “I’ve selected a nominee who is widely recognized not only as one of America’s sharpest legal minds, but someone who brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, even-handedness, and excellence.” He added pointedly, “To suggest that someone as qualified and respected as Merrick Garland doesn’t even deserve a hearing, let alone an up or down vote, to join an institution as important as our Supreme Court, when two-thirds of Americans believe otherwise—that would be unprecedented,” the President added.

Recent polls have shown that even a majority of Republicans believe that the Senate should hold a hearing for Garland. 

The court is currently split 4-4 on many key issues, such as women’s reproductive freedoms, with the future of legalized abortion hanging in the balance.  How Garland might rule on abortion is unknown, since he has not had to address the issue as a judge thus far. 

He did, however, vote in a unanimous decision in Priests for Life vs. Health and Human Services which saved the contraception benefit under the Affordable Care Act, The court rejected arguments brought by religious nonprofits, finding that the accommodation process to avoid complying with the Affordable Care Act’s contraception benefit does not violate their religious rights. The accommodation process allows third parties to provide the coverage for employees.

Garland has a more conservative record in criminal justice, stemming from his years as a prosecutor for the Justice Department in the Clinton administration, when he won the government’s case against Oklahoma City bombers Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry Nichols.   As a judge, he ruled that Guantanamo prisoners could be tried in a military tribunal, a ruling that was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

By refusing to hold hearings on Garland, Senate Republicans are playing a risky game, gambling that by delaying the decision, the next president would nominate a more conservative justice. 

But if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders should win the White House, either would no doubt appoint a far more liberal justice than Garland.  Moreover their nominee might well be much younger than Garland, who is 63 years old, having an influence on shaping Supreme Court cases for decades to come.   If Donald Trump is elected, though he is a Republican, his views on some issues have been criticized by both left and right, and his criteria for choosing a justice remain an unpredictable wild card. 

If the Democrats win, there is a chance that the Senate Republicans could decide to approve Garland during the lame-duck session before the new president takes office, though McConnell has said that will not occur.  Even if Republican Ted Cruz should win the presidency, doubtless aiming to appoint an ultra-conservative justice,  Democrats could potentially regain control of the Senate in the November election, giving them the power to block a conservative nominee,  just as Republicans are now obstructing hearings on a moderate candidate for the high court.

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not unprecedented

stretching the truth a bit aren't we? the senate is under no constitutional obligation to do anything. your liberal bigotry shows through again

You've got your facts wrong.

The Senate has a constitutional duty to hold hearings on Supreme Court nominees.

Since 1900 there have been six Supreme Court justices nominated in an election year and ALL of them were confirmed. There is nothing in the Constitution that makes exceptions for election years or anything else.

The Senate CAN choose to reject a specific nominee if they are unqualified or for other reasons, as was done with Justice Bork's rejected nomination.  That has been invoked only rarely, but NEVER has the Senate refused to hold a hearing for ANY nominee.

There's no "liberal bias" in stating the facts, though there are some biased so-called media out there attempting to justify this unprecedented obstructionism with spin and false statements.