The Real Deal: Empty Seat, Arguing Chamber

Aditya Tiwari

If the flurry of the 2016 presidential election news has made you pay more attention to politics more than you usually would, then you’ve probably heard that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died on the 13th of February. With that, he has not only set his own legacy for conservative interpretations of the Constitution, but also a new incoming political battle that may detract from or possibly enhance the surrounding discourse of the impending presidential race, as well as coverage of the United States Senate in particular. We’re getting another frank reminder that the Supreme Court is locked in a delicate ideological balance that will be flipped in favor of who is next appointed.

Now, if you weren’t familiar with the Supreme Court and Scalia’s role in it, you’re not alone. The Court makes its rulings in the summer, and cameras aren’t allowed inside the chamber so as to protect the privacy of those involved. At best, the oral arguments of the nine justices are recorded as audio, and released as lengthy transcripts, so there isn’t an innate appeal to covering the court compared to the more ‘entertaining’ and sometimes colorful exchanges and remarks from Congress or the president. But what is important about the Supreme Court is that its justices are appointed for life, and their decisions on cases set precedents on how the Constitution will be interpreted, i.e. they also set laws in effect. Antonin Scalia, aside from being a more conservative member, was appointed by Ronald Reagan as an ‘originalist’, i.e. that the Constitution is to be interpreted as is, and he was noted for his scathing opposition to majority opinions. In brief, he supported the disastrous effects of the Citizens United decision that allowed more money into politics than already necessary, and he was desperately opposed to the recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage. Also, he was unique in that he opposed capital punishment and voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act.

With Scalia’s untimely passing, the balance of the court now stands at four left leaning members and four right leaning members, and the ideological balance might shift to the left. At least, that’s what would happen if President Obama’s potential appointment makes it through an uncooperative Republican majority senate. As of now, President Obama faces the threat of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has come out to refuse and oppose any nomination to the court by the Obama administration until the end of the election cycle. Many Republican presidential candidates have come out in favor of this idea, with Ted Cruz saying he would readily leave the campaign trail to come and filibuster the nomination.

All in all, a lot of blame game politics are being thrown in as a result of Scalia’s death, with Senate Republicans arguing they can’t get an appointment done in ‘342 ish’ days left in President Obama’s term when it has been a fraction of that time before. The quickest appointment in recent years was the approval of justice John Paul Stevens under Gerald Ford in 19 days. By using these shaky arguments against a new appointment, Senate Republicans are ultimately betraying their originalist ally in the court, by refusing to let the president make an appointment to the court. Even more so, it’s indicative of an unspoken understanding of the Supreme Court. By controlling the ideological balance of the Supreme Court, parties are aiming to let it act in their favor, rather than letting it be the gate between politics and the Constitution.