March 29, 2020

Rehnquist’s warning

Chief Justice William Rehnquist came as close as possible this week to scolding Senate Republicans for their foot-dragging on confirming presidential nominees to the federal courts. Properly, he also mentioned the president’s slowness in making those nominations. Both sides should consider the chief justice’s chastisement ample notice that the public is fed up with their behavior.

President Clinton throughout his time in office has been slow to submit names to fill positions that are supposed to be essential to running the country. And, initially at least, when he did offer candidates, he either did not check thoroughly enough into their backgrounds or was not prepared to defend them when they faced a hostile Senate. This played easily into, or may have helped create, the GOP senators’ strategy of tying up candidates.

The result is that one seat in 10 on the federal bench now is vacant. Twenty-six of 82 seats have been open for more than 18 months. The delays, according to the chief justice, harm the judicial process.

The GOP goals are simple: Keep a Democratic president from appointing judges who will issue legal decisions long after the president has left office and give party members something to get excited about — and raise money for. Chief Justice Rehnquist, who was first nominated by President Richard Nixon and elevated to his current role by President Ronald Reagan, said, in essense, enough already. “The Senate is surely under no obligation to confirm any particular nominee, but after the necessary time for inquiry it should vote him up or vote him down.”

If the actors in this drama were not the nation’s leaders and were instead squabbling adolescents, an adult might intervene and suggest that the feuding parties sit down together and come to an agreement on a process that worked for both sides. Adolescents probably could solve the problem; for politicians, this might be more difficult.

Perhaps the public’s only recourse is the equivalent of withholding their allowance — campaign contributions.

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