WASHINGTON – The new Supreme Court opening is spurring tension in the U.S. Senate, with Democrats including Minnesota’s two senators demanding that the Republican majority wait to fill it until after the November election.
“It is really important that people have a real opportunity to weigh in, and I do believe that it’s important that we don’t take any action until after the election,” Sen. Tina Smith said Thursday in an interview.
With expectations widespread that President Donald Trump will nominate a strongly conservative judge to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy — a longtime swing vote on the nation’s high court — both Smith and Sen. Amy Klobuchar said they hope Trump instead considers what Smith called a “consensus candidate.”
Democrats are worried that a solidly conservative Supreme Court majority would undermine legal abortion, protections for medical coverage and the environment, and a host of civil rights laws. “This is a hugely important appointment, and it’s going to have major impacts on the future of our country,” Smith said.
Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will get the first chance to vet the nominee, said the stakes are higher than with Trump’s previous high-court choice, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who replaced another conservative justice.
“You want to have a balance on the court,” Klobuchar said in an interview. Along with former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, Klobuchar voted against Gorsuch’s confirmation. She called the Supreme Court “more than just a trophy for the executive branch” and said it’s important to have a justice who’s “more mainstream than Justice Gorsuch, someone who’s more independent, someone who respects precedent.”
Fresh in the mind of senators is the successful effort by Senate Republicans to block former President Barack Obama’s last high court nominee, Merrick Garland, from consideration for the seat that ultimately went to Gorsuch. His predecessor, Justice Antonin Scalia, died about 11 months before Obama left office.
Legal abortion ‘in peril’?
To underscore the importance of the next justice, Klobuchar and Smith both cited the possible threat to Roe. v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Kennedy co-authored a 1992 opinion that affirmed that decision.
“Given that Kennedy was the deciding vote on the case that affirmed Roe v. Wade, obviously that could be in peril,” Klobuchar said. “It would go to individual states and you’d have a patchwork of laws — that would be very concerning.”
Smith said that the freedom of women to decide when to start a family is fundamental. She added that Trump’s well-publicized list of potential nominees were “put together by these extremist and ultra-right-wing groups. These are not people who believe in that fundamental freedom.”
Both Klobuchar and Smith are facing Minnesota’s voters in this November’s midterm elections, and their Republican opponents are siding with GOP leaders in the Senate who say the chamber will vote on Trump’s nominee before then.
Smith and Klobuchar also highlighted the lawsuit brought by Texas and 19 other states, in which the Trump administration recently refused to defend a provision of the Affordable Care Act that protected coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
State Sen. Karin Housley, who is running against Smith, called for a speedy confirmation. She rejected any parallels between Republicans refusing to hold a vote on Garland and the current situation. That was a presidential election year, Housley said.
Housley, who is opposed to abortion, downplayed the possible threat against Roe v. Wade from a more conservative court. She described those concerns as “just the left trying to instill fear and get another talking point. … They pull out every trick they have in the bag to try and generate controversy.”
Housley said she’d like to see a woman replace Kennedy, given that there are only three female justices out of nine.
State Rep. Jim Newberger, Klobuchar’s Republican challenger, said he supports a swift confirmation, and he called Klobuchar an obstructionist of Trump’s agenda.
“There’s always going to be some partisan wrestling when it comes to appointments,” Newberger said. But, he added, “the Supreme Court serves a very important function in our country, and if we have a vacancy we should fill it in a timely fashion.”
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s three Republican congressmen — Reps. Erik Paulsen, Jason Lewis and Tom Emmer — are calling for the nomination of Minnesotan David Stras, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit who is on Trump’s list of prospective nominees.
“As a true originalist and textualist, Justice Stras has continually displayed his commitment to interpret the law, rather than make it,” the trio wrote to Trump.