With one early evening dispatch from the press office of the United States Supreme Court, American politics in a fevered election year suddenly became even more contentious.
The death Friday night of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added a new element of bitterness to the political season. And while encomiums of grief issued forth from the backers and admirers of the second woman on the American high court, they mixed with the partisan animosity that has marked the period in which Ms. Ginsburg, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, served as a liberal beacon in the chambers of the white marble building across from the Capitol.
Because with her death at 87 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Ms. Ginsburg set in motion a parallel political struggle to accompany the bitter presidential election only six weeks away.
The Republican Senate that refused to confirm a Barack Obama selection for the Supreme Court because the nomination was made in the 2016 presidential election year very likely will try to confirm a Donald Trump nominee even later in the 2020 presidential year. Though some fellow Republicans may balk at the effort, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky pledged emphatically Friday night that a Trump nominee “will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”
Thus the terms of the battle are set: where Republicans such as Mr. McConnell see opportunity, Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York see hypocrisy.
The contours of this battle took form a mere two hours after the announcement of the justice’s death, and they were set as advocates of women’s rights and supporters of liberal causes reflected both on the loss of the Ginsburg voice and the prospect of the nomination of a third conservative-leaning Trump appointment who almost certainly will oppose judicial activism and abortion rights.
"She was a courageous jurist who left an indelible, progressive mark on American jurisprudence and an inspiring one for judges everywhere,'' Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella said in a remark as she interrupted her Rosh Hashanah family meal to speak to The Globe and Mail. “The fight for global justice just got harder.” A year ago, Ms. Ginsburg described the Canadian jurist as one of her “dearest sisters-in-law.”
Almost no event short of a major national-security attack could have roiled American life with the turbulence and confusion of the death of Ms. Ginsburg. She was a pioneering battler who before joining the court was director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union during the 1970s and who developed a “RBG” cult following in recent years and was the subject of two heroic films.
In recent months, she was the leader of the liberal bloc, which had shrunk to four jurists (out of nine) and now could shrink to three — raising the possibility that conservatives would outnumber liberals on the court by a two-to-one margin on controversial cases. It was for that reason that she was determined repeatedly to return to health and her duties on the court, if only to deprive Mr. Trump of a third nomination, the most of any president since Ronald Reagan added Sandra Day O’Connor, the woman who preceded Ms. Ginsburg on the bench; Antonin Scalia, replaced by Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch; and Anthony Kennedy, replaced by Brett Kavanaugh.
The contention that marked the Kavanaugh nomination likely will be matched or even exceeded if Mr. Trump selects a replacement for Ms. Ginsburg, whom he described Friday night as “an amazing woman who led an amazing life.” In remarks given just moments after the death of Ms. Ginsburg, Mr. Trump — at that time unaware that such a possibility might avail itself — told a campaign audience he wanted to appoint Senator Ted Cruz, born in Calgary but representing Texas on Capitol Hill, to the court. Earlier this summer he released a list of 20 possible court selections, an action that pleased his base and infuriated his opponents.
Mr. McConnell, who controls the movement of legislation and confirmations onto the Senate floor, already has polished his rationale for doing for Mr. Trump in an election year what he refused to do for Mr. Obama in similar circumstances. His view: “Americans re-elected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary.”
It may not be quite as easy as that, though the Republicans have a 53-47 advantage, if the two Independents — Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine — count in the Democratic column for this purpose.
The reason: despite his majority, Mr. McConnell faces a difficult challenge, both in his re-election battle and in his battle to win confirmation of a Trump nominee.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said Friday she would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee so close to the election. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican whose re-election this fall is imperilled because she voted to confirm Mr. Kavanaugh, said this month it was “too close” to an election to vote on a new justice. Nearly the entire rationale for the Senate campaign of Sara Gideon, the speaker of the state House of Representatives who is Ms. Collins’s Democratic challenger, is the incumbent’s vote to confirm Mr. Kavanaugh, a theme she has hammered relentlessly for months. On Friday night, Ms. Gideon issued a tweet saluting Ms. Ginsburg as “a giant for justice, equality, and progress.”
Attention now focuses on Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who, like Mr. McConnell, is facing a difficult re-election battle. Two years ago he said that in such an eventuality “we’ll wait to the next election.” That quote already was flying around the internet Friday night, along with similar remarks from other Republicans. Democrats are searching the web for quotes like these, even as Republicans are searching their souls.
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