The troubled state of American politics: the death of Justice Scalia| February 21, 2016
Early in the morning on February 13, the Supreme Court lost its conservative powerhouse, Justice Antonin Scalia. Appointed by Reagan, Scalia was known for both his scathing and witty dissents and his originalist interpretation of the Constitution—that is, analyzing the document as the Founding Fathers intended when it was written, almost 230 years ago. The passing of a justice brings to the forefront one of the most important roles of the President: nominating an individual, with the Senate's approval, to the vacant seat on the court. This particular case, though, is peculiar and nuanced, as Scalia’s passing comes in the last year of Obama’s term, something that, as the National Constitution Center reports, has only happened eight times in the extended history of the Court.
At a news conference within hours of Scalia’s passing, according to Politico, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell retorted, “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” and therefore, “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” Looking to tip the balance of the Court in favor of the conservative vote, Republicans are demanding Obama forgo his obligation to nominate for the next president, someone whom the GOP hopes will be one of its own. After a borderline ironic moment of silence for Scalia, the Republican presidential candidates wasted no time in last week’s debatein fervently expressing this demand and requesting the Senate block any nomination. Leaders of the Democratic Party were equally as culpable, with powerhouses such as Senator Schumer of New York and Senator Warren of Massachusetts immediately affirming both the responsibility and obligation of the President and Congress under such circumstances.
Ultimately, this banter represents the current sorry state of American politics. Well before Scalia’s body arrived in Washington, the debate had already begun over Obama’s right to nominate, or potential lack thereof. Despite expecting strong Republican sentiment, a senior White House official found McConnell’s swiftness to be a “real shocker,” with Secretary Clinton calling his response “outrageous.” The New York Times summed it up well, commenting that the back-and-forth underscores “the country’s deep polarization and the reality of how elections are waged nowadays.”
The Supreme Court, despite some partisan leanings among the justices, has always been lauded as above the political bickering and pandering that too often plague the legislative and executive branches. Despite Scalia’s vitriolic conservatism, Obama, overlooking his disagreements with the late justice, called him a “brilliant legal mind with an energetic style, incisive wit, and colorful opinions” and “one of the most consequential judges and thinkers to serve on the Supreme Court.” Both Republicans and Democrats alike valued his ability to transcend his political leanings to make a thoughtful and well-informed decision. That his vacancy has set into motion a partisan cyclone underscores the turbulent state of politics, where polarization and hyperbole are rewarded in place of moderate thoughtfulness, as bombastic demagogues like Donald Trump amass strong constituent support. The notion that the current government, regardless of the political leaning of the majority, will coalesce and comprise in an effort to selflessly serve the American people is long gone, as ideas and bills from one party are struck down simply because of the ‘other’ party sponsored them. The grand and noble notions of politics once put forth by Plato and Aristotle have been usurped by a mentality that pits the two major parties against one another in a jockeying game for power. It is thus no surprise that Senator Rand Paul, in response to the question of what young Americans should do post-college, lamented that they “should get into something productive…and that would not be politics.”
President Obama should undoubtedly nominate a successor, in accordance with his constitutional duty, and also to preempt a potential 4-4 tie in major upcoming cases. Sandra Day O’Connor, also a conservative nominated by Reagan, affirmed Obama’s responsibilities and went against the opinions of the Republican establishment, commenting that “we need somebody in there to do the job and just get on with it.”
Similarly, the Senate is not obligated to confirm the nominee, but to at least give him or her a fair hearing. What seems most troubling, though, is the insight of Senator Ted Cruz '92 into the Republican senatorial machinery. Nominating someone now, he lamented, would not “be fair to the nominee,” essentially confirming that Republicans intend to block the nomination at all costs, regardless of who the nominee is and his or her qualifications. This process to appoint a justice should be treated as a litmus test for the future of politics in the United States.
Dan Sullivan is a freshman from Southold, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.