Last week, President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, testified before senators during his confirmation hearing. A vote is expected in the Senate sometime in April. This is all in the ongoing fight to fill the seat on the Supreme Court that became vacant in February 2016 with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
But what has happened in the process so far? And why are things moving so slowly? At the founding of our nation, the Founding Fathers feared having too much power in the hands of one person or branch of government. Thus, they created the three-part system we’ve all learned about in school. The legislative branch that makes the laws, the executive branch that enforces the laws and the judicial branch that interprets the laws. All three branches are supposed to hold one another in check.
For the all-important Supreme Court, the nine justices who render final decisions on legal disputes in the United States, the selection process needed to be special. So the founders split the responsibility between the two other branches of government. The President, as part of the executive branch, was given the power to nominate judges to the Supreme Court. The Senate, as part of the legislature, was given the power to ultimately confirm or reject the President’s nominee.
We saw this balance in action last year. When Justice Scalia died, former Democratic President Obama moved to nominate a replacement. In March of 2016, Judge Merrick Garland of the D.C. Circuit Court was recommended to the position. The Senate, under Republican control since 2015, did not hold any hearings, effectively rejecting Garland. Senate Republicans argued that in an election year, the people should be able to choose the next President, and with that, the next Supreme Court Justice.
Whatever your opinion on the issue, this isn’t an entirely new concept. Supreme Court nominees have been refused confirmation since our first President George Washington. Overall, out of 151 total nominees to the Supreme Court, 29 have been rejected by votes, withdrawn nominations or by the Senate taking no action. This represents a fail rate of almost 20 percent. The famously unsuccessful nomination of Robert Bork led to the verb bork being used to refer to the obstruction of a candidate through unfavorable publicity.
But today’s fights have become especially vicious. Both Garland and Gorsuch were confirmed by large margins in the Senate when they were appointed to their respective circuit courts, so why were each of their nominations so contentious? The answer is the Supreme Court is becoming increasingly partisan. Listen to any news channel talking about an upcoming court decision, and you will hear reference to the “liberal” and “conservative” blocs on the Supreme Court. The liberal bloc is often cited as justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. The conservative bloc is mentioned as justices Kennedy, Thomas, Roberts and Alito. Every justice in the liberal bloc was nominated by a Democrat, and the conservatives by Republicans. Since the groups are currently tied, it is of huge importance that either side can get a fifth justice to tip the balance in their favor.
But is this really how we want things to be? If we reduce the Supreme Court to ideological camps competing for control, it will effectively become the third house of the legislature, but with terms for life. If anything, we should be looking for judges who are non-partisan and interpreting the law fairly and without bias or prejudice, as most judges do. The interpretation of the laws of this country is too important to leave to politics, which is why an independent Supreme Court is so important.
I hope we can begin to look at the Supreme Court not as a way to resolve political problems but as the final arbiter of disputes in the law as it was set out to be. We already have enough politicking in two branches of government; it would only make things worse to bring it to the final third.
Connor Kockler is a Sauk Rapids-Rice High School student. He enjoys writing, politics and news, among other interests.