Reaction to the death of Justice Scalia

Like most people in the United States, I was surprised to hear of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday. Although he was the longest-serving justice on the current Court, he was, at 79, not the eldest, and was considered to be in good health.

He has been the anchor of the conservative justices on the Court for many years. He was an originalist, trying to interpret the Constitution as intended by its authors. I think of originalists as being akin to fundamentalists in religious interpretation. (When interpreting documents, I am more inclined toward taking into account the historical setting of the time a text was written, as well as historical-social developments since to gain contemporary understanding, which is the opposite school of thought to Scalia’s viewpoint.)

What was most shocking to me, though, was the reaction within hours by the Republican leaders of the Senate and the Republicans running for the presidential nomination that President Obama should not nominate a replacement for the Supreme Court vacancy, instead leaving it open until his successor takes office. (For those of you outside the United States, the Constitutionally-proscribed procedure is that the President nominates a person for the Supreme Court and the Senate then votes to accept or reject the nominee. Supreme Court appointments are for life and choosing Supreme Court nominees is considered one of the most important duties of the presidency.)

I was shocked first in social/human/religious terms, that the Republican Senate leadership was so immediately politicizing Justice Scalia’s death.  In the first hours and days after his death, there should have been recognition of his public service and condolences to his wife, their nine children and many grandchildren, colleagues, and friends, not political wrangling about his replacement. It was sadly ironic that many of the same politicians who say it is disrespectful to the families of victims to discuss gun control legislation in the aftermath of a mass shooting had no qualms about politicizing Justice Scalia’s death before his body had even been transported back to his hometown.

The Supreme Court has been closely divided in recent years, issuing many 5-4 decisions. With Justice Scalia gone, the current term is likely to be produce a number of 4-4 ties, which means that lower court rulings will stand, but that no precedent has been set. Those cases or issues are likely to come back to the Supreme Court in the future.

If a replacement for Justice Scalia has not been confirmed by October, when the next Court session will begin hearing arguments, the country risks losing the voice of the Court for another whole year.

Our government is already suffering from gridlock; we can’t afford to make it worse.

The Congressional Republicans have been obstructing much of the normal legislative functions of passing bills and timely confirmation of executive and judicial appointments during the Obama presidency.

It has to stop.

If the Republicans delay or obstruct a Senate confirmation for a Supreme Court justice, they are violating the Constitution that they have sworn to uphold.

PS  Within an hour of posting this, I ran across this segment of John Oliver discussing Scalia’s replacement. I thought you might enjoy it. Warning: there is a bit of adult language.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Vt9xV9ZI74

Government Gridlock: Theme and Variations

Before the Nov. 4 US elections, there was a lot of speculation about whether or not the Republicans would take a majority of the Senate seats. I thought about weighing in, but didn’t because I realized it wouldn’t really matter. We would just be swapping one flavor of legislative gridlock for another.

A primer of the US system, for those who don’t live in the United States:  Legislation must be passed by the majority of both houses of Congress, The House of Representatives and the Senate. (If each houses passes a different version of a bill, a conference committee drafts a compromise version for approval.) The President can sign the legislation into law or veto it. In the case of a veto, the bill doesn’t become law unless a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress vote to override the veto. The other important word to know is filibuster. In the Senate, 60 of 100 votes are needed to move a bill forward for a vote. This was originally designed as a way for minority views to be heard and was time-limited by the length of time that Senators could speak, but has morphed into a tool to block any legislation for which there are not 60 votes in favor, even if it has majority support of 51-59 votes.

Congress has been gridlocked for most of President Obama’s time in office. There was a brief period in the beginning of his presidency with a Democratic majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. This was when the stimulus bill and the Affordable Care Act were passed.  The Republicans had vowed not to support anything the President wanted, but they could not stop legislation, so there was no gridlock then, even though the Republicans were refusing to co-operate in governing.

Within months, due to the death of Senator Kennedy and a special election that went to a Republican, the Democrats lost the ability to break a filibuster in the Senate and the first flavor of gridlock began. Instead of the rare use of the filibuster that had been the case for the 200+ year history of the Senate, the Republicans began filibustering almost every piece of legislation and many nominations for judgeships and executive branch appointees. The Democratic majority House was still passing bills, but the Democratic majority Senate could not get them to the floor because the 41 Republicans kept filibustering.

Next, the Republicans, thanks largely to gerrymandering of Congressional districts within states, took the majority in the House, which began phase two of gridlock, where the House passed dozens of bills that were never going to be taken up in the Senate, like voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act fifty times, while the Senate Republicans filibustered almost everything that was proposed. When there was a rare instance of bipartisanship, such as the Senate passage of comprehensive immigration reform, the Republicans in the House wouldn’t even bring it up for a vote. Meanwhile, the filibuster in the Senate blocked nominations for key posts, so we faced the ebola situation without a surgeon general to lead and co-ordinate the efforts and the debacle with Russia and Ukraine without a US ambassador to Russia.

So, with the electorate already frustrated with gridlock and disgusted that this Congress is about to break the shameful record set by the last Congress for least number of laws passed, we held elections last week. Turnout was 36.3% of eligible voters, the lowest in seventy-two years. In many Congressional districts, including mine, an incumbent was running unopposed. The Republicans will hold a majority in both houses of Congress.

One could hope that the Republicans would now decide to co-operate with the Democrats in governing, as many past Congresses have done when one party had majorities in Congress with a sitting president from the other party.

Unfortunately, such hope is not warranted.

We are just going to move on to the next flavor of gridlock, although this one will probably have a bit more spice to it. Some legislation that the Democrats find particularly objectionable will be filibustered in the Senate. Other legislation may pass by both houses on party-line votes, get vetoed by the president, and then die because there will not be a two-thirds majority to override the veto.

The mystery lies in what happens after that political theater is over. Will the Republicans, having satisfied their base with their initial votes, actually work to craft a bipartisan solution which could pass both houses and be signed by the president?

I wish I could say yes, but recent Republican party history and current rhetoric do not give cause for hope.

I voted for myself

 
I got back from my polling place, which had a steady stream of citizens coming in to vote. Yay, Democracy!
Well, sort of yay…
Because of the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, there was only one candidate on the ballot for Congress, an incumbent who is part of the problem of Washington gridlock and with whom I fundamentally disagree on a host of important issues.
Despite his being the only name on the ballot, I could not bring myself to vote for him. I also did not want to leave that column of the ballot blank, so I decided to vote for myself.
I shared this plan with my Facebook friends yesterday, so I may get a few other write-in votes, too.
Here’s hoping that in two years I will have more choices on the ballot.