Supreme Court Vacancy Sets Off Debate as Trump Plans for Ginsburg Successor

By Andrew Restuccia, Natalie Andrews and Joshua Jamerson

WASHINGTON—The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg six weeks before Election Day stirred political jockeying by both parties, with Republicans pushing to move quickly on a successor and Democrats assessing options they have to keep the seat open.

President Trump said that this coming week he would nominate a woman as a successor to Justice Ginsburg, who died Friday of metastatic pancreatic cancer at age 87. Replacing the liberal icon with a conservative jurist could further entrench the court’s rightward shift.

The president’s list has been narrowed to two leading candidates, according to people familiar with the matter: federal appellate judges Amy Coney Barrett of the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago, and Barbara Lagoa of the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta.

On Sunday, GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joined fellow Republican Susan Collins of Maine, who is locked in a tough re-election fight, in saying she is opposed to confirming a Trump nominee before Election Day, on Nov. 3. Four Republican defections would be needed to block the confirmation if all members of the Democratic caucus oppose the pick, as expected.

“For weeks, I have stated that I would not support taking up a potential Supreme Court vacancy this close to the election,” Ms. Murkowski said in a written statement. “Sadly, what was then a hypothetical is now our reality, but my position has not changed.”

President Trump is expected to nominate a replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just weeks before Election Day. Rarely has a Supreme Court vacancy emerged so close to a presidential contest.

Ms. Murkowski said she didn’t support filling a vacant Supreme Court seat in 2016, when her party kept President Obama’s pick Merrick Garland from being considered, and that she believes the same standard should apply in this case. Sen. Collins said Saturday that the winner of the election should choose the next nominee and that the Senate shouldn’t vote before then.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who was leading Mr. Trump in polls taken before Justice Ginsburg’s death, called over the weekend for leaving the seat open until at least after the election. He invoked Justice Ginsburg’s final wish that she not be replaced until a new president is installed. “As a nation, we should heed her final call to us—not as a personal service to her, but as a service to the country, our country, at a crossroads,” the nominee said, noting that early voting had already begun in some states.

Mr. Biden is facing pressure from liberal groups to support a restructuring of the court such as adding members if Republicans quickly fill the seat.

A more rightward shift in the court could have significant implications for issues, including abortion, health care and the role of religion in public life. While justices across the ideological spectrum find common ground in many of the court’s cases, they tend to split into ideological camps on some of the most hot-button issues. The loss of Justice Ginsburg leaves the court’s liberal minority weakened and potentially changes the dynamics of high-stakes cases.

The bar for blocking Mr. Trump’s nominee remains high. Senate Republicans have a 53-member majority, and Vice President Mike Pence could break any tie.

Since Friday, more than 20 Republican senators have said they support moving forward with the confirmation vote as quickly as possible.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a retiring Republican from Tennessee who Democrats were watching closely as one who might join Sens. Collins and Murkowski, said he backed greenlighting the pick. “No one should be surprised that a Republican Senate majority would vote on a Republican President’s Supreme Court nomination, even during a presidential election year,” he said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who would preside over a confirmation hearing, said Saturday he was willing to proceed. Mr. Graham had earlier suggested he would hold a vacancy open in the last year of Mr. Trump’s term.

Many senators pointed to timing constraints, rather than objections on principle, as potential hurdles. For Supreme Court nominees since 1975, the median amount of time from nomination until a floor vote was 69 days, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. There were 44 days until Election Day, as of Sunday.

Control of the Senate is considered up for grabs in the election, and it is unclear how the court vacancy will affect races. Should Democrats win the seats needed to take control, most would assume office in January.

In one race, Arizona, astronaut Mark Kelly could take his seat before December should he beat Sen. Martha McSally, who was appointed as a replacement for the late Sen. John McCain.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has committed to confirming the president’s nominee, but he hasn’t said whether a final vote will occur before or after Election Day. The Senate was slated to be out much of October to campaign, though the Judiciary panel could still meet to hold confirmation hearings.

Marc Short, chief of staff to Mr. Pence, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that it was feasible that the Senate could confirm a Trump nominee before the election, without committing to doing so. “I think that the president’s obligation is to make the nomination. We’ll leave the timetable to Leader McConnell,” he said.

Asked about Justice Ginsburg’s dying wish that a successor not be nominated until a new president was installed, Mr. Short said, “She blazed a trail for many women in the legal profession, but the decision of when to nominate does not lie with her.”

Democrats have accused Mr. McConnell of hypocrisy, noting the denial of a hearing to Judge Garland in 2016 because it was an election year.

Asked about that on Sunday, Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “When you have both parties in the White House and the Senate, historically the confirmation goes forward. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday morning it is “particularly important that the Senate take it up and confirm this nomination before the election” in case the election outcome is contested and eventually decided by the Supreme Court.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) acknowledged Sunday that Democrats have little power to stop the confirmation process. “We have arrows in our quiver that I’m not about to discuss right now,” she said on ABC.

Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), who objected when Republicans blocked Mr. Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court nine months before the 2016 election, said the circumstances are different now that we are much closer to the election.

“In 25 states across our country, half of our states, Americans are already voting for the next president,” he told “Fox News Sunday.” “We’re not 10 or nine months away from an election, we’re just 44 days from an election.”

Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee and a California senator who sits on the Judiciary Committee, told supporters in a fundraising email, “We cannot let them win this fight.” She added, “The work of holding Senate Republicans accountable to the standard they set in 2016 starts now.”

SOURCE : WALL STREET JOURNAL

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