Never Reward a Bully

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The Sjupremes

Constitutional law expert Cass Sunstein has just given the Democratic Senators some advice on how to handle the Gorsuch vote.

Sunstein  outlines five options before choosing the  one that suggests they  vote against any nominee who they feel puts in jeopardy basic constitutional protections, a description he believes   Gorsuch warrants; but that they shouldn’t go so far as to filibuster his confirmation if he has the support of a majority of the Senate.

I myself  would prefer Sunstein’s  option 3; it holds they should not only vote against Gorsuch  but , if necessary, also filibuster to prevent  his confirmation. Sunstein thinks this stance has its strengths, but finally rejects it as imprudent because  it would further encourage the public perception that  the Supreme Court is a  political rather than a legal institution.

Sunstein  agrees that “it is perfectly appropriate for senators to oppose nominees on the ground that they disapprove of their likely judgments, above all if those judgments would be destructive to liberty and equality.” He even admits that this position “is refreshingly candid.” But he rejects it because  “it acknowledges that confirmation wars are here to stay, which would be pretty terrible news.”

I too shudder when I hear  Supreme Court justices routinely described as “Republican appointees” or “Democratic  appointees.” But I think the way to end this  embarrassment is to render these terms  less relevant in describing the opinions of the individual justices.  We need a tacit truce between the parties that provides that Democratic presidents will appoint Democratic moderates to the Court and Republican presidents moderate Republicans. The goal should be a Supreme Court of centrists their opponents think they  can live with.  Caving in to Mitch McConnell’s “take no prisoners” approach last year is not the way to achieve a centrist court.

Here’s why I part ways with Professor Sunstein.  I don’t think that rewarding a bully is ever a  good negotiation tactic ; and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has shown himself to be  just that.  When President Obama attempted to cool down the nomination wars by choosing the highly respected Democratic centrist judge Merrick Garland as his nominee, McConnell  refused to hold hearings on the Garland nomination, urging Republican colleagues not to even meet with him.

Yet now the Republicans choose Neil Gorsuch to serve in  Garland’s place. Neil Gorsuch is much like other recent Republican nominees– impeccable academic background, soft-spoken, and adept at giving non-responsive answers to questions that would reveal his views on key constitutional issues.   But we know from his opinions and speeches that his confirmation would only tighten the Federalist Society’s grip on the Court.

What will happen if the Democrats accept Gorsuch’s ascension to the Court without a full out fight? Sunstein  appears to think that a statesman-like surrender  will end the political polarization of the confirmation process, but I think it will only encourage the Republicans like McConnell to be even more aggressive in the future. Why change what has proved a winning strategy?

The way to change the public’s perception of the Court as a hyper-political institution is to appoint justices who are not perceived as hyper-political.  And that will only come about when  Democratic presidents nominate centrist Democrats and Republican presidents nominate centrist Republicans. And the first step necessary to bringing about this new truce is not rewarding McConnell for his hyper-partisanship.

Some may fear that appointing moderates  will rob the Court of  input  from justices who are willing to push the constitutional envelope.   But I think study of the Court’s history shows this to be a false fear.  No one expected former Republican District Attorney Earl Warren to lead a constitutional   revolution in the due process  protections afforded criminal defendants. But Warren did exactly that.  And no one ever expected Roman Catholic Reagan counselor Anthony Kennedy to cast the deciding vote in the gay rights case. But he did.

When you give a judge life tenure you must recognize that  he or she  may “evolve'” to embrace positions we– and even  he or she– never foresaw. This intellectual fluidity is good for the Court.  Ensure that  they start in the mainstream and let time, the responsibilities of the job, and the quirks of  human nature give us all the constitutional flexibility  we need.


  1. Louise Epstein says

    I agree completely with your title and analysis.  Thanks.

    From: Guile is Good To: Sent: Wednesday, March 29, 2017 11:45 AM Subject: [New post] Never Reward a Bully #yiv8844138114 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv8844138114 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv8844138114 a.yiv8844138114primaryactionlink:link, #yiv8844138114 a.yiv8844138114primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv8844138114 a.yiv8844138114primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv8844138114 a.yiv8844138114primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv8844138114 | denvirj posted: “Constitutional law expert Cass Sunstein has just given the Democratic Senators some advice on how to handle the Gorsuch vote.  outlines five o” | |


  2. I too agree. It is unproductive and indeed damaging to award the bully approach to appointments that was exhibited by Mitch McConnell. There are also a few influential Republicans who have express their distaste for regulating away the filibuster. Perhaps it won’t happen. And if it does, the Democrats will not be in any worse position than they are now.


  3. Delos Putz says

    My heart agrees with you, but my head is still undecided. I don’t think the filibuster will succeed in defeating Gorsuch.   I don’t understand the possible consequences of forcing the Republicans to invoke “the nuclear option” to end the filibuster.  Is it wise to force the Republicans to do that?


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