by Nicholas Muellerleile
It has been a year of distraction and scandal, to the point where the abstract strangeness of it all no longer registers. The extended vacancy on the Supreme Court would be the biggest political embarrassment of the year, if this were even close to being a normal year. Now, months later, we sit with a Scalia-shaped hole both on the bench of the nation's highest court and in our hearts, with seemingly no end in sight. How did things end up like this? What, if anything, can be done about it? Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Walter Mondale addressed these issues in a recent forum held at the University of Minnesota Law School, organized jointly the American Constitution Society’s Minneapolis-St. Paul Lawyer Chapter and Student Chapter at the University of Minnesota Law School, along with the University of Minnesota Law Democrats.
One theme running throughout the forum was the notion that recently, in Congress, something has changed. Rote tasks, ministerial appointments and other basic functions of government have become political acts. Sen. Klobuchar told the audience of the struggles to pass the budget in late 2012. The end result was that she spent New Year's Eve between Sens. Reid and McConnell. “No Girl wants to do that”, she told the audience. Former Vice President Mondale called much of the current partisanship “childish” and spoke of his experience in the Senate. Qualified nominees for the court were passed with near unanimity. Even the appointment of William Rhenquist was, by comparison with today, an example of democracy in action, clearing the 66-vote threshold required.
The voting threshold was one area where the speakers had different views. The supermajority requirement has been relaxed to 60 votes to confirm a Supreme Court Justice and there seemed to be some flexibility as to whether even that threshold should be lowered. Both Sen. Klobuchar and Former Vice President Mondale agreed that there was something special about the Supreme Court, something that required more than just the simple majority required for other appointments. Both speakers also seemed willing to admit that in light of the present deadlock, even 60 votes might be too high. But then what? 55? 53? Sen. Klobuchar stated that she would not be opposed to having the Supreme Court appointment be made a simple majority vote, “in the event it becomes a Constitutional crisis.” When pressed about this during the Q & A session, Sen. Klobuchar made clear that the issue was about political gridlock, not about trying to enforce different rules depending who would win the election. “You have got to live by the rules you set up,” Vice President Mondale added.
Even in a forum discussing the Supreme Court vacancy, the presidential election loomed large. Both the speakers and the audience recognized that the stakes were high and there were murmurs of tense acknowledgement when Sen. Klobuchar commented that “this really is about our democracy.” In spite of all the rhetoric from some lawmakers, Sen. Klobuchar felt that there might be a chance of Garland getting appointed during the Obama lame duck session. Then again, maybe he will not be. After all, stranger things have happened this year.