Inquirer Editorial: Politics wrong scale to weigh Obama, Christie nominees

Judge Merrick Garland , President Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court. PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP
Judge Merrick Garland , President Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court. PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP
Posted: March 17, 2016

If Merrick Garland were a team in the NCAA basketball tournament, few if any office-pool brackets would have President Obama's Supreme Court nominee making it past the first round.

The odds are against Garland's Senate confirmation, but not because he isn't qualified. In fact, less than a week before Obama's announcement Wednesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the longest-serving Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Garland "a fine man" for the court.

Hatch further opined that Obama would nominate someone more liberal "because this appointment is about the election." But Hatch was wrong: Obama did nominate Garland, and in doing so he may have called the bluff of Senate Republicans who have vowed not to hold hearings for anyone he chooses.

The stakes are too high to treat the appointment of a Supreme Court justice like a game of poker. Garland should be granted a fair hearing because that is the Senate's constitutional role in this process. Regardless of Obama's political motives, he has nominated someone who appears to be strongly suited for the position.

Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, isn't a rigid conservative like the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Nor is he a flame-throwing liberal. Obama said Garland, who rose to the appeals court in 1997 with the backing of seven current GOP senators, is known for his "decency, modesty, integrity, evenhandedness, and excellence."

None of those attributes appear to matter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who insists that a president with less than a year left in his tenure should allow his successor to fill any Supreme Court vacancy. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), using logic reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, tweeted that he would gladly consider Garland's nomination if a president after Obama makes it.

A similar stalemate exists in New Jersey, where Senate Democrats refuse to consider Gov. Christie's nominee to the state Supreme Court. They, too, are wrong to ignore their constitutional duty to hold a hearing on state Superior Court Judge David Bauman of Monmouth County, whom Christie nominated last month. A hearing would not obligate them to approve the nomination.

The New Jersey stew was boiled by Christie, who in 2010 ignored the state's tradition of renominating justices in good standing after their initial seven-year terms to serve until they must retire, at age 70. Christie refused to reappoint the only African American justice, John Wallace, on the grounds that the court was too liberal. In 2013, he also declined to reappoint Justice Helen Hoens, contending that Democrats angry about Wallace wouldn't be fair to her.

Democrats have a right to be angry. They have confirmed three of Christie's nominees, and they want him to follow the example of Republican Gov. Thomas Kean, who reappointed five justices originally appointed by his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Brendan Byrne. But Christie's unreasonableness is not enough reason to avoid their constitutional duty. The Senate should hold a hearing on Bauman.

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