It is difficult to follow Linda Greenhouse’s reasoning that the Court has been “broken” because it has been made into an electoral “prize.” Presidential candidates campaign on promises to support the nomination and confirmation of Justices who will move the Court’s jurisprudence in a desired direction. Why should they not? The Court does not decide only abstruse legal issues of interest primarily to learned commentators. If electoral competition necessarily features arguments about--to name a few-- reproductive rights, or voting rights, or the role of money in politics, then it will require candidates to take a stand on the Court. And in some elections, the issue will be right in the thick of the fight.
Donald Trump made as much as he could of the critical importance to Republicans of a Court molded in the image of the late Justice Scalia. Secretary Clinton told the Democratic Convention that: “We need to appoint Supreme Court justices who will get money out of politics and expand voting rights, not restrict them. And we’ll pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.” No one doubted that the election would be consequential for the Court. Voters were entitled to know how much of a priority each party attached to the issue and what the candidates would look for in their nominees. The parties and their candidates obliged--as they should have.
None of this excuses the Republican refusal to provide a hearing for and allow a vote on the Garland nomination. But it is mistake to confuse this escalation in the struggle over the Court with the larger point about the central importance in national political conflicts of the Court’s composition. The Senate has an obligation to attend to the procedures and norms consistent with institutional interests and its governing responsibility in the long run. One aspect of this obligation is managing and translating political pressures, not giving entirely into them, in order to preserve the capacity of the body to function as a creditable legislature. If Senator McConnell were to announce that the Senate majority will closely coordinate legislative priorities with the RNC and that the RNC Chair will attend, to this end, the weekly Senate Republican Caucus lunches, there would be an outcry.
The Garland maneuver is an abuse close to this in kind. The Republican Senate majority decided to shape a process---in effect, to invent one--to enable the party’s Presidential candidate to campaign on a pledge to nominate the appropriate successor to Scalia, and to turn the nomination into electoral prize. The Senate subordinated its “advice and consent” function to Republican electoral objectives. Never before had the Senate taken the position that a duly elected President in an election year had no call on the Senate to advise and consent on a Court nomination. As Robin Bradley Kar and Jason Mazzone have shown, the Senate has “transferred” to the next administration the power to nominate to fill a vacancy only when the president had assumed office on the death of a predecessor, or a nomination was made by one president after another had been elected but not yet taken the oath.