The battle over the Supreme Court vacancy has generated a surfeit of sharp attack ads, pointed floor speeches and occasional personal attacks. On Tuesday morning, the fight took a more genteel tone as the two longest-serving U.S. senators gave dueling speeches on the Senate’s responsibility to act on high-court nominations.
Senators Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) are both former chairmen of the Senate Judiciary Committee and have presided over multiple Supreme Court confirmation hearings, giving their voices extra heft inside the Capitol halls. Adding to the distinction was the host and the location: The Edward M. Kennedy Institute, created to honor its namesake’s five decades of Senate service, invited the lawmakers to make their address in the Kennedy Caucus Room, the august hall named in honor of the Kennedy brothers.
In front of Victoria Reggie Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s widow, Leahy explicitly invoked the late senator’s legacy in calling on the Senate to act on President Obama’s nomination of U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick B. Garland to succeed the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.
“I wish today we had more of Senator Kennedy’s commitment to the Constitution,” Leahy said, before setting out the Democratic case for confirming Garland.
Kennedy, he said, “appreciated the role of the Senate — he knew that sometimes you had to be an instigator, sometimes a defender, sometimes a compromiser. But we are called to fulfill our constitutional duties. We are called to lead. We need to do our job.”
Speaking before Leahy, Hatch had kind words for his late friend, but he did not seek to argue that Kennedy would have taken one position or the other on filling the Scalia vacancy. Instead he made a high-minded appeal to constitutional principles and historical precedent.
“The judicial appointment process is an example of how America’s founders sought to limit government power by dividing it,” Hatch said, adding that the Constitution “does not mandate a one-size-fits-all confirmation process but leaves these judgment calls for the Senate to make.”
He argued that the blockade of Garland’s nomination makes sense as both a matter of principle and of politics: “The 2012 election had consequences for the president and his power to nominate. The 2014 election had consequences for the Senate and its power of advice and consent. And the 2016 election will have consequences for the American people because they can have a voice in the direction of the courts. The issue is when and how, not whether, the Senate will consider a nominee for the Scalia vacancy.”
The speeches came five weeks after Garland’s nomination — as it has become increasingly difficult to discern a path to his confirmation before the November election. Garland has met with nearly a dozen Republican senators, and none has changed their view on his nomination after sitting down with him.
Leahy, in one of the few pointed moments of the morning event, took issue with the arguments proffered by Hatch and his GOP colleagues: “Some claim that their unprecedented obstruction against Chief Judge Garland is based on principle, not the person. Oh, balderdash.”