Editorial: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, confirmation hearings for a new justice

On September 18th, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died after a long, intermittent battle with pancreatic cancer, shocking the country and setting the stage for a bitter fight over control of the Supreme Court. The 87-year-old Justice, known affectionately as “RBG,” was a brilliant legal mind, a pop-culture icon and a feminist giant of American jurisprudence. She leaves a lasting legacy in her wake, but she also leaves a court vacancy.


Despite initial speculation to the contrary, President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate will attempt to fill that vacancy. Just hours after Ginsburg’s death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a statement in which he pledged to promptly hold a vote on a new Supreme Court nominee. Disrespectful timing aside, that pledge all but guarantees a political bloodbath in the month before a pivotal general election. Without the recently-abolished judicial filibuster, the Republican Senate majority will almost certainly win that fight, but they certainly won’t fly under the media radar — they may dominate even these most chaotic of news cycles. Meanwhile, the most important election in our lifetimes ticks closer.


Constitutionally speaking, President Trump has every right to appoint a new justice to the court, as nearly every president has when given the opportunity. But just four years ago, Mitch McConnell and the Senate majority refused even to hold hearings on Obama appointee Merrick Garland. The obstructors argued that holding hearings so close to an election would politicize the court, and that the American people should determine the next justice by electing a new president. In that case, a vacancy opened eight months before the election. This time, November is just over a month away, yet Republican leadership has opted to reverse their own precedent.


The hypocrisy of this reversal is obvious. Since the night of Ginsburg’s death, footage has surfaced of senator after senator explaining how irresponsible it would be to fill a Supreme Court vacancy so close to a presidential election. In one old video of Lindsey Graham, for example, the senator tells Democrats to “use [his] words against [him]” if another vacancy occurs in an election year. And yet, Senator Graham is poised to do exactly what he spoke against four years ago. 


Unfortunately, simply pointing out hypocrisy accomplishes little — senators are accustomed to cognitive dissonance. Nonetheless, we should call hypocrisy as we see it. Republicans have again made abundantly clear that power is their chief party value. 


With this in mind, we at The Chronicle believe that the Senate should follow the precedent set in 2016 and wait to confirm a new Supreme Court justice until after inauguration in 2021. As McConnell himself said, we should “let the American people decide.” Precedents so clearly set should not be so casually discarded. Further, the Republican’s original argument is stronger in this instance — these hearings are slated to occur on the eve of an election, not eight months prior, and Americans are even more polarized now. It would be impossible to begin an apolitical or even remotely neutral confirmation process at this point, and we should not. The court is political enough already.


Senate precedent and the neutrality of the court, however, are not the only things on the line. 48-year-old Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s recently-announced nominee, could shape conservative court decisions for decades. Barrett has only two years of judicial experience, so her stance on certain issues is unclear. She has, however, hinted strongly at views that disturb us, including staunchly conservative positions on abortion, the environment, LGBTQ+ rights and the Affordable Care Act. Her personal opposition to gay marriage, for example, is cause for serious concern. While her judicial stance on that issue is unclear, her views on it are contemptible. Her regressive conservative stances mean that we would oppose her nomination even under normal circumstances.


On a broader note, it concerns us that the rights of millions of Americans and the future of the highest court in the land relied on the survival of one 87-year-old with cancer. One death should not throw a durable democracy into turmoil, and one death should not determine whether millions of Americans retain their right to equal treatment under the law. We condemn hypocrisy and Barrett’s backwards beliefs, but the impending bitter fight over her nomination prompts a broader conclusion: it may be time to reevaluate the Supreme Court.