Huge fight looms over nominee to replace Scalia

A copy of the US Constitution rests among tributes outside the Supreme Court in Washington for Justice Scalia, who died last Saturday. The White House has vowed to select a nominee within weeks.
A copy of the US Constitution rests among tributes outside the Supreme Court in Washington for Justice Scalia, who died last Saturday. The White House has vowed to select a nominee within weeks.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Republicans want to delay filling US Supreme Court vacancy until after presidential election

WASHINGTON • An epic Washington political battle has begun after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, with Senate Republicans saying they would refuse to act on any Supreme Court nomination by President Barack Obama.

Yet the White House has vowed to select a nominee within weeks.

Mr Scalia died on Saturday of an apparent heart attack at age 79, leaving what had been a conservative-dominated court evenly divided in a year of blockbuster cases - on abortion, affirmative action, immigration and Mr Obama's healthcare law.

Multiple Republican senators have said they strongly support the position of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that the high court vacancy should not be filled until after the presidential election, denying Mr Obama a chance to reconfigure the court's ideological makeup.


  • WASHINGTON • Six contenders for Supreme Court nomination picked by US legal observers:


    Judge on the US Court of Appeals. White male. Born in Illinois.

    Had a crucial role in the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing.Would not excite liberal Democrats and may be seen as too old.

    KAMALA HARRIS. Age: 51

    California's Attorney-General. Black and Indian-American female. A longtime state prosecutor, Ms Harris is running to succeed a Democratic senator who is retiring. Republicans would be likely to block her.


    Judge on the US Court of Appeals. Hispanic male. Born in Cuba.

    A former federal prosecutor, Mr Jordan would be the first Cuban-American justice on the Supreme Court. If Republicans blocked him, it could have political consequences with Latino voters.

    JANE KELLY. Age: 51.

    Judge on the US Court of Appeals. White female. Born in Indiana.

    A longtime public defender, Ms Kelly's ascent to the appeals court was strongly supported by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles E. Grassley, a Republican.


    Judge on the US Court of Appeals. Indian-American male. Born in India. Worked in the Office of the Solicitor-General during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Mr Srinivasan would be the first Indian-American justice. He is seen as a moderate, giving Republicans less justification to block him.

    PAUL WATFORD. Age: 48

    Judge on the US Court of Appeals. African-American male. A former federal prosecutor who represented corporate clients in private practice, Mr Watford would be the third African-American justice. He would offer some ideological balance to the court's only current black jurist, the strongly conservative Clarence Thomas.


The decision will overshadow Mr Obama's remaining 11 months in office and shape his legacy. Either choice risks creating unparalleled gridlock with congressional Republicans that would mean Mr Obama's final days in office are devoured by bitter partisan warfare.

Based on Mr Obama's precedent with judicial vacancies, he is expected to choose a moderate with a shot at ascending to the high court, however unlikely that path might be. Pressure is sure to come from some in his party to take advantage of the inevitable showdown with Republicans - who have vowed to stop any Obama nominee - and showcase a nominee who would inspire Democratic activists in the November election. 

The stance against even considering a nominee puts Senate Republicans in the politically charged position of defying the President on a crucial court opening in the heat of the presidential campaign - and while also trying to hold on to their majority in the Senate. "I don't see anyone getting confirmed," said Republican Senator Mike Lee, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, which would consider any nomination.

Despite the resistance, the White House said it was moving ahead but noted that Mr Obama would not immediately announce his choice.

A senior official pointed out that Mr Obama made both his previous Supreme Court nominations about 30 days after their predecessors announced they were stepping down.

Democrats quickly took aim at Republicans, saying that a refusal to even hold a hearing would amount to an outrageous act of obstructionism. "I think there is at least a 50-50 chance that pressure from the Republican Senate caucus will force McConnell to reverse himself and at least hold hearings and a vote," said Senator Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate and a member of the Judiciary Committee.

In choosing a nominee, Mr Obama could pick a liberal version of Mr Scalia, which would fire up Democrats but would virtually assure that Republicans would block the nomination in the Senate. Or he could choose a moderate - someone who built a career as a prosecutor or a corporate litigator, with little record on culture-war issues - which could increase pressure on Republicans to allow a vote.

But that could pose other problems. If Mr Obama passes up the opportunity to put forward a liberal in favour of someone who represented corporations, it could provoke sharp criticism from the left. The danger is not just reducing potential voter enthusiasm from Democrats but roiling the Democratic presidential primary.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'Huge fight looms over nominee to replace Scalia'. Print Edition | Subscribe