Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurrence in Trump v. Hawaii turned out to be a kind of farewell message from the longtime jurist, who announced his retirement yesterday after the end of the Supreme Court’s term. His call for care and adherence to constitutional principles in the statements and actions of government officials in that concurrence has a special resonance now, as the nation moves forward into what will undoubtedly be a bruising battle over the nomination of his successor.
These days, every Supreme Court nomination is a huge event, but the replacement of Justice Kennedy is a special moment. He has long been seen as the crucial “swing” vote in important, hotly contested cases that ultimately were decided by a 5-4 margin, and a centrist who might side with the liberal position in one case and the conservative position in another. As a result, Republicans see the nomination of his replacement as a chance to reorient the Court, eliminate the “swing,” and lock in a predictably conservative majority — which is exactly what Democrats fear. And who can blame them? These days, with Congress often rendered inert by infighting and inability to compromise and the Executive Branch governing by executive order, the Supreme Court is increasingly seen, and has increasingly acted, as the ultimate decider of all kinds of policy issues that used to be reserved for the political branches of government.
The upcoming confirmation process will not be a high-minded moment for our country. With passions already at full boil, and with Democrats angered by fresh memories of the Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland in the last year of President Obama’s term and Republicans recalling the Senate Democrats’ use of the “nuclear option” when the Democrats were in the majority, we can expect a heated, partisan, no-holds-barred process.
This means that the nominee, whoever it is, will receive the most exacting examination imaginable. You can be sure that every organization, position, and activity on the nominee’s resume, from college days forward, will be put under a microscope, and every word in every opinion the nominee has written will be inspected and weighed for signs of intrinsic bias that could be used to argue against confirmation. Can a President who has lots of skeletons in his own personal closet, and who has struggled to identify qualified individuals to fill positions in his Administration, actually select a nominee who can withstand the spotlight that will be directed at everything he or she has done? And how many potential nominees — and their families — will quail at the prospect of such personally intrusive, withering scrutiny?
It’s not going to be pretty, folks.