One of the more far-reaching issues of the 2016 presidential campaign came into focus for a brief, illuminating moment at the start of the final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
It had to do with the current administration’s unfinished business.
Clinton called on the U.S. Senate to hold hearings and vote on the confirmation of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy left when Justice Antonin Scalia died in February. Senators should take the advice.
By any measure, Garland is qualified to serve on the nation’s highest court. In the 1990s, when he worked in the U.S. Justice Department, he supervised prosecutions of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, who was tried in Sacramento, and the white supremacist terrorists who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building and killed 168 people.
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Since 1997, Garland has sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., has been its chief judge since 2013 and is widely known to be a thoughtful, even-tempered, mainstream jurist.
For partisan reasons, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has bottled up the nomination. But there is time for McConnell to carry out his duties. Once the election is over, McConnell should convene a lame-duck session, and senators should hold hearings and vote on Garland’s nomination.
Whatever Garland’s fate, the next president probably will have one or more Supreme Court appointment. And as was clear once more during the debate Wednesday night, Trump and Clinton could not be more different.
Trump reduced the question of Supreme Court appointments to one of abortion and gun control, issues sure to appeal to his narrow base of voters. He promised to nominate “pro-life” justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, leaving abortion decisions up to states, most of which have restricted access to abortion.
Crowing again about his National Rifle Association endorsement, Trump promised to nominate justices who would guard the Second Amendment, as he and the NRA see it. He also claimed, falsely, that Clinton would eviscerate gun owners’ rights.
The next president will nominate justices who probably will rule on cases affecting hot-button issues such as abortion, gay rights, the Second Amendment and whether big-money players can spend unlimited sums on campaigns. But Clinton made clear that the high court deals with topics that affect everyone, including privacy, voting rights, fair housing, workers’ rights and recourse in the courts for those who are wronged by others.
“I feel strongly that the Supreme Court needs to stand on the side of the American people, not on the side of the powerful corporations and the wealthy,” Clinton said, an answer intended to resonate with the vast middle of the electorate who will decide the election.
Clinton also knows that the disease of hyperpartisanship will continue to infect the confirmation process. Facing re-election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pledged that Republicans would oppose whomever Clinton might nominate.
“I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up,” McCain said. His office attempted to walk back the statement. But McCain had given one of the more honest – and disheartening – assessments of the election season.
The 2016 campaign is heading into the final few days, mercifully. But once again, voters are reminded of the starkly different visions of Clinton and Trump, and the partisan times in which we live.
We do, however, hold out some hope for a little post-election clarity, and that the Senate will hold hearings on and confirm a judge who clearly is qualified, Merrick Garland.