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Court opening widens political divide

As if there weren’t enough issues dividing the country, Republican senators will have confirmation hearings to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

The decision isn’t surprising as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has done remarkable work keeping his caucus in line.

Only two Republican senators said they oppose confirming a Supreme Court justice in a presidential election year at a time when early voting has started in some states and will begin soon in several others.

The two senators don’t come as a surprise to those who follow politics. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were not expected to support the move and won’t.

Mitt Romney of Utah, who doesn’t get along with President Donald Trump, decided to move ahead with confirmation hearings, but that’s not really a shock.

With 53 Republicans in the Senate and Vice President Mike Pence being a tiebreaker, if needed, the party could have survived having three of its own opting not to consider confirmation. Instead, it got two.

Democrats are up in arms over the rush to confirm.

On March 16, 2016, then-President Barack Obama, a Democrat, nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created by the death of Antonin Scalia, a conservative. If the Republican-controlled Senate had allowed Garland to be confirmed, it would have swung the court 5-4 in favor of liberals.

At the time, Senate Republicans said they wouldn’t allow the nomination to go through during a presidential election year and that Scalia’s successor should be chosen by the next president.

The Democratic-controlled Senate on Feb. 3, 1988, confirmed Anthony Kennedy to the court by a 97-0 vote. He was nominated by Republican Ronald Reagan in his last year of his second term as president.

But those in control make the rules, and McConnell views confirming as many conservative judges as possible to be his most important role as Senate majority leader.

The whole controversy is moot if Trump is re-elected, and Republicans retain control of the Senate.

The Senate will have a quick confirmation process with hearings expected to start in mid-October. Regardless of whether a justice is confirmed before or after the election or whether Trump is re-elected or whether Republicans lose control of the Senate, a new conservative justice will be seated this year.

That will give conservatives a 6-3 advantage on the Supreme Court.

The oldest justice on the court is Stephen Breyer, 82, who was nominated by Democrat Bill Clinton followed by two conservatives: Clarence Thomas, 72, nominated by Republican George H.W. Bush, and Samuel Alito Jr., 70, nominated by Republican George W. Bush.

It’s quite likely Breyer will be the next justice to leave the bench. If Trump gets another four years, the Supreme Court could be 7-2 conservative. If it’s Democrat Joe Biden winning the election, the court would be 6-3.

Either way, it will be Republican for at least another decade.

That is unless a Biden presidency along with a Democratic-controlled Senate decide to increase the size of the nine-member court. Biden isn’t talking about it at this point, but some Democrats are.

So what does the appointment process — particularly with Republicans replacing Ginsburg, a liberal icon — mean for this presidential race?

Supreme Court appointments are always an important issue in presidential elections, and we’ve never had a justice die this close to Election Day.

It will energize the base of both parties.

The confirmation hearings will add to that.

Polls show Trump trailing nationally, but polls are a snapshot of what a certain number of people willing to talk are thinking at a particular time.

As Bill Binning, retired chairman of Youngstown State University’s political science department, told me the day after Ginsburg’s death: “It’s going to add more chaos to an already chaotic election.”

Skolnick covers politics for the Tribune Chronicle and The

Vindicator.

dskolnick@tribtoday.com

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