The Other Side of the Battle to Replace Justice Kennedy
Don’t be cheering in triumph. The retirement of a member of the high court should always be a sober occasion. So should the process of choosing a successor. The last time President Donald Trump filled a vacancy, I wrote in this space that his process risked transforming the announcement into something akin to a game show. Whether you agree or not, at least consider this: In all our conversations about the Supreme Court, we should avoid any semblance of a death watch, as though we’re rooting for this or that justice to get sick and have to step down — or to pass away. We live in an era when partisans on social media routinely wish horrible things upon their opponents. If the Republican Party can avoid treating this moment as one for celebration, perhaps it can even elevate the debate.
Related coverage of Kennedy’s retirement
The Editors: The Supreme Court After Kennedy
Ponnuru: Kennedy’s Replacement Should Be Amy Coney Barrett
I’d urge Republican senators and White House staffers to do a lot of consultation with the Democrats. With the death of the filibuster, there’s no way to block the nominee, but that’s beside the point. One way to improve comity in the future is to practice it now. Don’t be the Borg way (“Resistance is futile”). Maybe not in 2021, maybe not even in 2025, but one January you will wake up and discover that your party controls neither the Senate nor the White House. Surely you’ll insist that a Democratic president seek your advice as well as your consent for judicial nominees, just as the Constitution provides. So take the first step.
And take the step seriously.
Resist the temptation to ask in private what the nominee will be careful not to answer in public. It’s tempting to construct a bench peopled entirely with individuals who have already promised, even if behind closed doors, to vote a particular way on particular issues. But to call such an institution a court is to lapse into the all-too-common incoherence of the age.
Bear in mind President Abraham Lincoln’s response to Representative George S. Boutwell of Massachusetts, who had written to congratulate him on the nomination of Salmon P. Chase to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court: “We cannot ask a man what he will do, and if we should, and he should answer us, we should despise him for it.” Now consider the next sentence of Lincoln’s letter: “Therefore we must take a man whose opinions are known.”
Here our greatest president is being clever. As much as anyone, he understood that views change over time. Certainly his own had. And even after we sift a nominee’s past opinions and articles, even after we speak to their colleagues and friends, we will never really know the nominee’s views. We’ll have to guess. Here the limited information with which we act is a feature, not a bug. In building a court for the long run, we’d be foolish to spend our efforts obsessing mainly over the issues of the day.
Whoever is selected, advise your president not to go on the attack against anyone who offers the smallest criticism of his nominee. I realize that he’s not likely to follow your advice, but at least you can try. There’s no perfect candidate, and there are always fair and legitimate questions.