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Ginsburg’s passing sets stage for contentious political fight over next Supreme Court justice

September 19, 2020, 2:01 AM UTC
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 14: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen as she presents the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Inaugural Woman of Leadership Award to Agnes Gund at The Library of Congress on February 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images)
Shannon Finney—Getty Images

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, at the age of 87, brought a close to one of the most distinguished lives and careers in the history of the American judiciary.

It will also likely spark a contentious debate over the fate of Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court, which now sits vacant with less than two months to go until the 2020 presidential election. In the days before her death, Ginsburg reportedly dictated a statement to her granddaughter expressing her own thoughts on the matter: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

Given her role as one of the leaders of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing, Ginsburg’s wish may not come as a surprise to many conservatives. But her words set the stage for what’s poised to be a fierce political battle over how she should be replaced—and who will have the right to do so.

Ginsburg’s death comes 46 days before this November’s presidential election, and four years after Senate Republicans succeeded in stopping President Obama’s election-year nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court—an appointment that would have seen the late conservative jurist Antonin Scalia replaced by a lame duck Democratic president.

The bitter, protracted fight over Garland’s nomination—and the obstinate tactics employed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)—has lived long in the memory of congressional Democrats. McConnell’s counterpart, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), took to Twitter Friday to echo McConnell’s words from four years ago in calling for Ginsburg’s vacancy to “not be filled until we have a new president.”

At this early stage, it appears that there may be some bipartisan support for holding off on Ginsburg’s replacement until after the election; Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has reportedly committed to doing just that, while her Senate colleagues Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have previously voiced similar sentiments.

But that may not matter to the powers-that-be in the White House and the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill. By Friday evening, it was reported that President Trump is set to announce his nominee to succeed Ginsburg in a matter of days, while McConnell released a statement that committed to giving Trump’s nominee a vote on the floor of the Senate:

Still, it remains to be seen whether Trump and McConnell will be able to rally their troops—and beat off what will surely be fierce opposition—to nominate and confirm a new Supreme Court justice before November’s election. As some observers have noted, it would require a historically speedy process.

With the Trump administration having just released an expanded list of potential Supreme Court justices, the groundwork has been laid for a contentious battle over the future of the highest court in the land. Having already appointed two justices (Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh), the President and his allies will be keen to further reshape the court in their image, while congressional Democrats will surely fight tooth-and-nail to ensure the court doesn’t swing even further to the right.

Whatever happens, one thing is certain: a historic, unprecedented election year has somehow just become even more unpredictable.