by Mark S. Kende, Director of the Drake Constitutional Law Center, James Madison Chair in Constitutional Law
Judge Neil Gorsuch finished testifying yesterday so today was made up of testimony by surrogates and opponents. Perhaps most significantly, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer is urging his party to filibuster the nomination. Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican Chair of the Judiciary Committee has labeled this a smoke screen. What would be the consequences of such an action and would it be wise?
Historically, the filibuster is most famous for being used by senators from the South seeking to block civil rights legislation. Thus it would be ironic to see the more liberal party employ this tactic. Moreover, the filibuster is a very rare specimen in the Supreme Court context. One of the only other examples was a Senate filibuster in 1968 regarding the nomination of Justice Abe Fortas to be Chief Justice, which was based on ethics concerns and political bias.
But despite its rarity, a Democratic filibuster is completely justified by the outrageous refusal of the Republicans even to give President Obama’s nominee, the very distinguished Chief Judge Merrick Garland, a hearing. By contrast, the Democrats have shown Judge Gorsuch a huge courtesy, not shown to their nominee, in treating Gorsuch fairly and giving him extensive hearings. The Democrats have set an example of how not to be hyper-partisan and immoral. And yet Republicans still have had the chutzpa to say that a filibuster would be obstructionist. The Republicans even stole one of President Obama’s most basic executive powers from him (selecting a potential justice who would receive a fair hearing), and gave pretextual reasons for doing so. That is not just obstructionist, it was contrary to the Constitution.
Admittedly, a filibuster may be largely symbolic. If the Democrats keep the Republicans from obtaining 60 votes, Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said he will ensure a change in Senate rules, so that only 50 votes will be needed for Judge Gorsuch to take office. This is typical of the new Trump era -- if the Republicans are losing, they simply change the rules of the game. This may be comprehensible as raw politics, but it is shameful when the fate of the Supreme Court and the rule of law itself is at stake.