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SCOTUS TIDBITS

THE SUPREME COURT of the United States is much in the news these days, what with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Republican efforts to rush a replacement within three months of the presidential election. Here are tidbits on SCOTUS, its purpose, its makeup, and recent historical shenanigans.

The United States Supreme Court, Washington, D.C. Image by Matt Wade Wikipedia Commons.

A Constitutional Concept. As we are all (or perhaps once were…) taught, our Federal Government consists of three interactive branches, the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial. The Congress’s Senate and House of Representatives legislate, the President’s branch executes the laws, and the Supreme Court judges on the legitimacy of these laws and actions. 

Inherent checks and balances of these three branches, we were taught, made our government the envy of much of the world.

Alas, to me, the past tense, “made,” seems necessary these days. 

A Justice for Life. Supreme Court justices, unlike the President and members of Congress, are appointed for life, the idea being to enhance their independence and profit from their mature judicial wisdom. 

Speaking of which, as described at history.com, “There are no official qualifications for becoming a Supreme Court justice.” Indeed, training in the law is not required, though it has been the practice. 

Appropriate age, citizenship, and residency are requirements for the Presidency and Congress, but not for the Supreme Court. For example, Justice Felix Frankfurter, who served from 1939 to 1962, was born in Vienna, Austria.

Many justices serve until their deaths. Over time, though, more than 50 have chosen to retire: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., retired in 1932 at age 90. 

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1841–1935, American jurist, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, 1902–1932

More recently, Sandra Day O’Conner (the first woman to serve) retired from the Supreme Court in 2006 at age 75; David Souter, in 2009 at age 69; and Anthony Kennedy, in 2018 at age 82.

As Wikipedia notes, “… especially in recent decades, many justices have timed their departures to coincide with a philosophically compatible president holding office, to ensure that a like-minded successor would be appointed.” 

Death Upsets Strategy. Justice Anthony Scalia, a conservative, died in February 2016, and President Barak Obama nominated Merrick Garland, a moderate, to succeed him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans got all nerdy about a president having this power in his last year of office (and especially with the audacity of his replacing a conservative with a moderate). 

Details in npr.org, June 29, 2018, described “… even before Obama had named Garland, and in fact only hours after Scalia’s death was announced, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared any appointment by a sitting president to be null and void.” 

The Senate refused even to begin their vetting process of Garland, the result being Trump’s eventual appointment of conservative Neil Gorsuch.  And, if one thinks in more recent terms, there’s the contentious appointment of Bret Kavanaugh.

Image by Saul Loeb/AP from “Brett Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford Testify in Historic Senate Hearing: Recap,” by Rob Tornoe and Michael Boren, The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 2018.

Talk about “packing the court.”

As recorded in usatoday.com, March 16, 2016, McConnell said, “The next president may also nominate someone very different. Either way, our view is this: Give the people a voice.” 

On Politicians and Hypocrisy. More recently, as reported by cbsnews.com, September 19, 2020, “Just hours after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said President Trump’s nominee to replace her ‘will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.’ But four years ago, when Justice Antonin Scalia died in an election year, McConnell repeatedly argued against even holding a hearing for a replacement.”

Image from apnews.

I would remind Kentucky voters about what McConnell said back in 2016: “Give the people a choice.” ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

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