American politics stops for no man, and the war to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy has been waging for about a year. After the death of Antonin Scalia, President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland, who Republican senators vehemently opposed on the grounds that the next American President should make the nomination.
For the Republican senators, this opposition was a triumph, and early in President Trump’s term, he nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch for the position. At age 49, Judge Gorsuch is the youngest sitting justice since Clarence Thomas assumed office in 1991. At the time of his nomination, Judge Gorsuch was recognized to have conservative values similar to those of Scalia, and would have a fairly strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
Judge Gorsuch is no stranger to Capitol Hill and he has clerked for two Supreme Court Justices. He comes from Ivy League background with degrees from Columbia, Harvard and Oxford University. He was met by a range of criticisms and perspectives, from “phenomenal nominee” to “downright hostile” to “could have been worse.”
During his confirmation hearings, the Senate used aggressive rhetoric as they wielded their opening statements to criticize each other’s positions, the treatment of Judge Garland, and Judge Gorsuch’s past rulings. Despite the intense partisan rhetoric, on April 7th 2017, Judge Gorsuch was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice who is likely to have a lasting legacy as his term could last upward of 30 years.
Not only was the rhetoric heated, Republican Senators abandoned the usual process in confirming Supreme Court justices in order to push Judge Gorsuch’s nomination through. To do this, they invoked the “nuclear process.”
For those less familiar with the inner workings of the US Constitution, after debating the nomination, the Senate takes a vote to confirm or deny the Supreme Court nominee. The Senate allows for unlimited debate (otherwise known as filibustering), which was practiced by Democratic Senators over the candidate. To end this debate, which could go on indefinitely (and kind of did), the Senate requires the votes of 3/5 of the Senate, or 60 votes, which Judge Gorsuch did not receive.
That was not the final word for Judge Gorsuch, however, and Republican Senators turned to the nuclear option to confirm his nomination. The controversial option changed the procedure to require only 51 votes instead of the original 60 in order to pass Judge Gorsuch. This change in longstanding precedent was enough to end the debate and for Judge Gorsuch’s nomination to be confirmed.
So why is this important?
First, this confirmation is significant because President Trump has left a lasting legacy for as long as Neil Gorsuch serves as a Conservative Supreme Court justice, which could be a while. Second, the Senate changed the long standing procedure notated in the US constitution in order to confirm their candidate. This controversial move shows that in the capitol, politicians are changing the game to get their way in an unprecedented manner. More than that, the nuclear option rigged the procedure to allow Senators to vote along partisan lines, not considering that the Supreme Court should serve bipartisan interests in an arguably impartial way. In the future, however, this change also means that in the case of a Democratic majority in the Senate, Democrats would have the upper hand in future debates.
Regardless of what it means right now, turning to the nuclear option to confirm Judge Gorsuch will have lasting effects on American politics, and we as American citizens have to decide whether we support these kinds of tactics being used to change the game on Capitol Hill.