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article imageTrump's Supreme Court push roils US election

By Brian KNOWLTON (AFP)     Sep 19, 2020 in Politics

US President Donald Trump on Saturday urged Republican lawmakers to confirm his upcoming nomination for the Supreme Court "without delay" as the issue upended the election only a day after the death of liberal stalwart Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The 87-year-old justice, immensely popular among Democrats, died Friday after a long battle with cancer, prompting an outpouring of national grief.

Her death, coming just weeks before the November 3 election, leaves her seat on the court -- to which justices are appointed for life -- vacant, offering Republicans a chance to lock in a conservative majority at the court for decades.

The stakes are high as the decision could affect such life-and-death issues as abortion, healthcare, gun control and gay rights.

They are pushed even higher in a bitter election year when the justices can play a decisive role in legal wrangling over a contested result -- such as when they ruled in George W. Bush's favor to end the 2000 election debacle.

There are nine justices on the court. Trump has already named two during his first term as president, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, giving conservatives a 5-4 majority before Ginsburg's death, though that does not guarantee rulings in Trump's favor -- there have been several recent examples of conservatives siding with their progressive colleagues to tilt the balance.

Trump, who is lagging in the polls behind Biden, has another powerful incentive to move ahead: providing a jolt of enthusiasm among his anti-abortion and evangelical supporters.

"We have this obligation, without delay!" Trump tweeted.

But, with 45 days to go before the election and some early voting already begun in some states, Democrats are pushing back furiously.

Biden said Friday that "the voters should pick the president and the president should pick the justice for the Senate to consider."

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was only the second woman ever nominated to the US Supreme Court
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was only the second woman ever nominated to the US Supreme Court

The prospect of a fierce partisan nomination battle and rushed Senate confirmation vote has ignited his party, still seething over Republicans preventing Barack Obama from filling a court vacancy through most of the 2016 election year.

"Democrats are hopping mad about this -- not just a little mad," University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato told CNN.

- 'Nothing is off the table' -

While Democrats' options seem limited, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer told party members Saturday that if Republicans press ahead then "nothing is off the table," according to media reports.

"This vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president," Schumer said Friday, carefully echoing the words of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in 2016 when he blocked Obama nominee Merrick Garland.

The make-up of the US Supreme Court
The make-up of the US Supreme Court

Republicans in theory have the Senate votes to push through a Trump nominee, but they could be blocked by only a handful of defections.

Analysts predicted Democrats would do their best to drag out the process while fanning public outrage over what Democrats called the Republicans' hypocrisy.

"Their option is to build a groundswell... to try to convince at least four Republican senators to vote 'no' on whoever the president puts forward," Amy Howe, co-founder of a Supreme Court blog, said on CNN.

A confirmation vote of Trump's eventual nominee before November 3 would be unusually quick. The average period from nomination to confirmation is around 70 days.

- Republican doubters -

A handful of moderate Republican senators -- including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine -- have already expressed doubts about a rushed vote.

Other Republicans facing tough reelection races may be loath to take a stand before the vote.

Democrats, meantime, are using the past words of some Republicans against them.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a close Republican ally of Trump's, had said in 2018 that "if an opening comes in the last year of President Trump's term, and the primary process has started, we'll wait to the next election."

US President Donald Trump said in August he would have no qualms about naming a new justice so close...
US President Donald Trump said in August he would have no qualms about naming a new justice so close to the election
Brendan Smialowski, AFP

But Graham, who as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee will oversee the confirmation hearings, tweeted Saturday that he would support Trump "in any effort to move forward regarding the recent vacancy created by the passing of Justice Ginsburg."

One prominent Democratic member of the committee is none other than Senator Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate, who commanded the spotlight 2018 with her aggressive questioning of Trump court nominee Kavanaugh.

On Saturday, Harris and her husband visited the Supreme Court building to join hundreds of mourners, many of them women, to pay homage to Ginsburg.

"RBG was one of my pioneers, an icon, a fighter," Harris told AFP. "She was a woman in every way."

- Court reform? -

Trump has already named scores of conservatives as federal judges, and Democrats fear a deep and lasting shift in balance at the Supreme Court.

"If he's allowed to put more conservatives in, this is going to be disastrous for the next 40 to 50 years," said Gloria Browne-Marshall, a civil rights attorney, on CNN.

Some Democrats have mused that if Biden is elected and Democrats control both houses of Congress, they might expand the court from nine seats to 11 -- allowing the new president to appoint two more liberal justices.

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