The progressive left claims a win as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announces his retirement.
When left-wing activists, from community organizers to journalists, started a pressure campaign recently to force Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer into retirement, Washington’s political intelligentsia didn’t like their chances.
Breyer was notoriously, often proudly and vocally, impervious to political pressure. Most thought any attempts to pressure him off the bench before his time would be met with recalcitrant refusal.
“Retire Breyer!” was the left’s rallying cry, for one Twitter-trending moment, but the consensus was patchy- at best. Supreme Court Justice Breyer was and is a well-respected moderate/liberal-leaning justice, a 27-year experienced veteran of the court, well liked and respected by his colleagues in both parties, and a reliably-progressive Supreme Court Justice for more years than many of his Twitter critics have been alive.
While the consensus was patchy, with not everyone in the Democratic Party willing to demand a replacement for Breyer, the fear which motivated this call to retire Breyer was very real. It was a fear shared by most progressives still smarting from the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett by then-President Donald Trump after the passing of Supreme Court Justice and liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
That Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett sits the Supreme Court today is due to what perhaps was- in retrospect- a major miscalculation on the part of the Democratic Party during the close of President Obama’s second term.
At that time, there was much discussion of Ruth Bader Ginsburg retiring from the Supreme Court. Allowing Obama to appoint her successor would have meant balance maintained in the court: One liberal justice retires and is replaced by a liberal justice.
Only that didn’t happen.
Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was instead replaced by conservative Amy Coney Barrett.
There are many theories as to why Obama didn’t appoint Ginsburg’s replacement on the Supreme Court, why Ginsburg chose to hold on as the then-oldest member of the court.
One theory is that the Democratic Party wanted Obama’s successor, who was thought to be Hillary Clinton, to appoint Ginsburg’s replacement. In that scenario, Clinton was to have appointed Barack Obama to the Supreme Court.
It might have been a very good fit, considering his ample qualifications and relative youth. Since Supreme Court appointments, once confirmed, are for life, Presidents often appoint younger candidates.
None of that happened, of course. In spite of all the polls, and pollsters, who swore seven ways from Sunday that the heat death of the universe would transpire before Donald J. Trump became America’s President, Hillary Clinton lost, and Trump was elected.
That Trump got to successfully appoint not one but three Supreme Court Justices during his term, and one of them a conservative-leaning judge to replace a liberal-leaning one, is one of the lasting legacies of his presidency.
If you are a Republican, that may be good.
If your politics align more with progressives, it is bad.
Progressives, in addition to pressing Breyer to retire, have also floated the idea of increasing the size of the court during President Joe Biden’s term, while Democrats control the House and Senate, to expand the court and pack it with liberal justices.
That idea hasn’t gained much traction among Democratic Party moderates, many of whom have signaled they are hesitant to support such an extreme measure. Should Biden appoint someone progressive enough to appease the far-left, the win might quiet those calls for awhile.
On the campaign trail, Joe Biden promised to nominate the nation’s first Black woman to the Supreme Court. After Justice Breyer’s announcement, that call was quickly echoed by pundits and the Twitterverse.
There was some speculation on Capitol Hill not long ago that Biden might consider nominating Vice President Kamala Harris to the Supreme Court, should the opportunity arise.
Whether or not there is any truth to the rumor, for now Harris’s name is mostly being floated as that all-important tie-breaking vote in the Senate afforded the Vice President. With a near evenly divided Senate, that tie-breaking vote on the side of Biden’s nominee, whoever they are, may be the deciding vote.
It is that close.
A rule was changed during the Obama Administration by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He lowered the threshold for judicial nominees from a 2/3 majority vote to a simple majority. When Republicans reclaimed the Senate the following election cycle, Mitch McConnell followed suit and lowered the bar on confirming Supreme Court Justices to a simple majority as well.
Neither party needs a two-thirds majority to confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court anymore. With a simple majority the ruling party can confirm their candidate on a party line vote.
This particular rule-change was perhaps a bit reckless. It was one of those decisions that make perfect sense when you are in the majority, especially by a very thin margin, but can come back to haunt you later when the other party again gains the upper hand, as they always eventually do.
Whatever regrets Senate Democrats had about the new lower confirmation thresholds during the Trump Administration have all but evaporated now.
All Democrats will need to confirm their candidate is a simple majority, which they will almost certainly have.
While the White House has been quick to distance itself from the announcement, and the Democratic Party claims to have played no part in it, the timing is still causing speculation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi enthusiastically announced her campaign for reelection this week, in an attempt to put to bed any notions of her imminent retirement at the mid-terms. But another Democratic Congressman retired this week, marking the 29th in the run-up to the mid-term election.
Democrats may be anxious to replace Breyer now- fearing that if Republicans take over control of the Senate, it will be much, much more difficult to confirm any Biden Supreme Court nominee.
Whatever the reasons, and whatever the mid-terms hold for Democratic Party majorities in the Senate and House, there is not likely to be a lengthy, ugly confirmation battle over this particular nominee.
Whoever President Biden taps will be on the fast-track to the highest court in the land, and Democrats can be assured of maintaining the number of liberal-leaning justices on the Supreme Court.
Come what may in November.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)