President Obama has announced Judge Merrick Garland, of the United States Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, as his choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Although Judge Garland is certainly a credible candidate for the court, the Senate should postpone consideration of his nomination until after the new president takes office in January 2017. This has nothing to do with Judge Garland, but is the indispensable measure to protect the Supreme Court’s institutional legitimacy.
Scalia’s seat must be filled, but there is emphatically no constitutional timeline that either the president or the Senate must follow in making a new appointment. If that process is undertaken now, the nominee will for all intents and purposes become a “candidate” in this election and the Supreme Court — and by extension the federal judiciary in general — will be further politicized with concomitant damage to the legitimacy of the only unelected, and emphatically non-political, branch of the federal government.
There is little doubt that the electorate, left, right and center, already harbors deep doubts about the efficacy, legitimacy and even good will of all governmental institutions and that the Supreme Court’s own standing has been steadily undermined by relentless attacks on its decisions from all parts of the ideological spectrum. Although the court remains more popular than Congress and about as popular as the president, at the same time it is a counter-majoritarian institution and, as a result, its legitimacy is inherently far more brittle than that of the elected branches of government.
It is particularly vulnerable to the perception that it is acting politically, rather than scrupulously applying the Constitution and statutes to adjudicate cases. As Alexander Hamilton famously explained in The Federalist, delineating the separation of powers among the three federal branches and defending the proposition that the judiciary was to be “the least dangerous” branch, it was to “have neither Force nor Will, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.” But, with no electoral constituency to supports its legitimacy and authority, that judgment must be respected. Unfortunately, after three generations as a central force in effecting various types of social and political changes, the Supreme Court’s judgments are respected mostly by the “winners” of the relevant political battles it has determined to resolve.
This state of affairs, particularly when coupled with the fact that a number of intense battles between Congress and the president and the president and the states — implicating both the core separation of powers issues and pivotal matters of public policy — are now on the court’s docket, and will remain there for the foreseeable future, requires that both Congress and the president work to support and protect its legitimacy as a non-political institution.
The problem here, and the most likely explanation for the court’s declining approval ratings, is not what issues the court decides — as early as the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville noted that “scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question” — but how it decides. Or, perhaps more to the immediate point, how it is perceived to decide those issues.
With this in mind, having a protracted battle over the confirmation of a new justice unfold in the middle of an already bitter national election would be the worst thing to happen. Each side has its “litmus” tests, whether it is the overturning of the Supreme Court’s decisions on campaign expenditures and gun control on the left, or its decisions on abortion, same-sex marriage and Obamacare on the right. Nominating and confirming a justice with such litmus tests dominating the process — as they certainly will — would reinforce the impression that the court is indeed a political institution and would damage its reputation, legitimacy and efficacy beyond repair.
President Obama indisputably has the constitutional right to make appointments to the Supreme Court, but only by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. As a full partner in this process, the Senate would be entirely justified — indeed, it would be responsible and prudent — to postpone any consideration of a nomination to fill Justice Scalia’s seat until after the new president, Democrat or Republican, is inaugurated. And this would not be a slight or injury to President Obama, who has already appointed two Supreme Court justices. His term is in its final year, and filling seats on the Supreme Court is not a personal, presidential entitlement. The Senate majority leadership has concluded that postponing the confirmation process is appropriate, and it is perfectly entitled to do so. Having the Supreme Court function for a time with eight members will not destroy the republic, while making any new justice an election year football would gravely damage the court as an institution — an institution that is necessary to the republic’s survival and prosperity.
David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey served in the U.S. Justice Department under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.