WASHINGTON (AP) — The death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the vacancy on the Supreme Court has touched off a partisan fight in Washington over who should pick his replacement, President Barack Obama or his successor. Here are some questions and answers about the battle:
What’s at stake?
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of Scalia’s death. The high court had been split with four generally reliable conservatives on one side and four liberal votes on the other, with Justice Anthony Kennedy often the swing vote. Scalia’s death takes away one critical conservative vote. If he’s replaced by a liberal or moderate Obama nominee, the balance of the court would change, with potentially enormous consequences for issues like abortion, union rights, immigration, and congressional redistricting.
What happens first?
It’s up to Obama to nominate a replacement. He has said he will do so.
Nothing. Republicans controlling the Senate — which must confirm any Obama appointee before the individual is seated on the court — say they won’t schedule a vote or even hold hearings on whomever Obama may name. They argue that the decision is too important to be determined by a lame-duck president and that voters in November’s election should determine whether Scalia’s successor is replaced by a Republican or a Democrat.
“It’s not about the nominee. It’s about who chooses,” said GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas.
Democrats counter that the voters did have a say when they re-elected Obama in 2012.
Republicans also argue that the Senate’s longstanding tradition is to not confirm justices in an election year, and they point to a June 1992 Senate speech by Vice President Joe Biden, then the Delaware senator, in which he argued that then President George H.W. Bush should not name a successor if a justice were to die or resign. Democrats note that in the most recent corresponding example, in 1988, Ronald Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy was confirmed by a Democratic-controlled Senate.
Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans said Tuesday that the panel won’t even hold a hearing on anyone Obama names, much less award them with a floor vote, an unprecedented move for the modern-day Senate. Precedent holds that the committee could reject Obama’s nomination outright or follow the tradition of the failed nomination of Robert Bork or the bitterly-fought 1991 battle over Justice Clarence Thomas and send it to the full Senate without actually approving it.
So no vote?
Still, the prospect of simply sitting on a nomination all year seems to be making a few Republicans uncomfortable, such as Sen. Mark Kirk, up for re-election in heavily Democratic Illinois and moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, both of whom say the Senate should consider whomever Obama names. On the other side are most Republicans and conservative activists adamant that Obama shouldn’t change the balance of the Court.
What did Obama do as a senator?
Obama opposed both Roberts and Alito. And Obama also voted to filibuster Alito, which he now regrets.
What if this year’s Supreme Court deadlocks on a case?
Under the rules, the appellate court’s ruling stands. That would mean lower court decisions such as one overturning Obama’s executive moves on immigration would stand, while others, such as an appellate ruling backing up public employee unions in their right to assess dues, would be affirmed and go Obama’s way. But court observers believe that Chief Justice John Roberts would likely order any deadlocked case to be reargued.