Constitutional Crisis on the Horizon: GOP Leaders Pledge No Hearing on SCOTUS Nominee

The Supreme Court looks set to remain short-handed long into the future after GOP Senate leaders formally pledged to resist any effort by President Obama to seat a new justice on the high court’s bench.

In a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday, Republican members of the Judiciary Committee stated that they would not consider any Obama nomination to replace the hyper-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Led by Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa.), they claimed that their obstruction was formed on sound constitutional grounds.

“The President may nominate judges of the Supreme Court. But the power to grant, or withhold, consent to such nominees rests exclusively with the United States Senate,” the senators wrote.

“Because our decision is based on constitutional principle and born of a necessity to protect the will of the American people,” the letter read, “this Committee will not hold hearings on any Supreme Court nominee until after our next President is sworn in on January 20, 2017.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking member on the panel, replied to his Republican colleagues by noting that their pledge was history-making—and not in a good way.

“I have served on the Judiciary Committee for 36 years,” Leahy said in a floor speech. “During my time on the Committee, we have never refused to send a Supreme Court nominee to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.”

The Republican maneuvering to deny as much as a hearing on a high court nominee breaks a precedent that dates back to the early 20th century.

“Since Committee hearings began in 1916, every pending Supreme Court nominee has received a hearing, except nine nominees who were all confirmed within eleven days. Your decision is an unprecedented and drastic departure from this body’s history,” Democrats on the panel noted in a letter to Chairman Grassley.

In briefing with reporters Tuesday, Leader McConnell claimed his caucus was unified in derailing an Obama-appointed Supreme Court justice. “I believe the overwhelming view of the Republican conference in the senate is that the this nomination should not be filled – this vacancy should not be filled – by this lame duck president,” he said.

McConnell didn’t mention that already some within his ranks have defected. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) penned an op-ed on Monday calling on the Senate to consider a nominee. Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.) have also made similar overtures.

When asked if he’d even meet with a nominee, McConnell said he would “not be inclined to.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) also rejected any face-to-face with a potential justice. “I don’t see the point of going through the motions, if we know what the outcome is going to be,” he said, claiming it would create a “misleading impression.”

The White House remains undeterred by Republican threats of SCOTUS obstruction, which began within hours after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, administration spokesman Josh Earnest said the president “will continue to review material that’s provided by his legal team” on potential nominees. Earnest commented on “how thick the binder was.”

Although Senate Republicans claim to be acting within the confines of the constitution, they could be leading the country into uncharted waters, if successful in their stonewalling. The founding document stipulates no recourse for what should happen, if the Senate opts to continuously refuse the President’s pick to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. When an eight-justice Supreme Court votes 4-4, the ruling in that case that preceded the split stands.

The longest wait-time for a nominee to receive a vote was 125 days. After being picked by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, Louis Brandeis spent over four months in limbo before being confirmed. The longest that the modern Supreme Court has gone without a full bench is 391 days. Both records could soon be smashed: President Obama still has more than 330 days remaining in office.