Previously published at WGBH News.
Recently I proposed to fix our state elections by adopting ranked voter choice, moving the primaries to June, and making them nonpartisan. (You’re welcome.) Today I’m back with the exponentially more difficult task of repairing our broken Supreme Court confirmation process. My plan, I think, is simple and logical. But I’d be the first to concede that it has virtually no chance of happening.
Let’s begin with this: Judge Brett Kavanaugh will almost certainly be confirmed once the FBI has finished its quickie investigation. Senate Republicans have been pining for an ultraconservative like Kavanaugh for years, and they’re not going to let credible allegations of sexual assault, false testimony about his role in the George W. Bush administration’s torture policy, and a career spent immersed in the culture of misogyny to stand in the way.
What’s next? Democrats may take over the Senate in the November election, and they’ll be spoiling for a fight. It’s more than possible that they will reinvestigate Kavanaugh and maybe even impeach him. He has given them plenty of reasons to do so. But that’s the road to chaos, and it would lead to an endless cycle of retribution. That cycle has to be stopped, and on terms that recognize what a terrible choice Kavanaugh was while leaving both parties a chance to regain their dignity.
The way to do that is to let Kavanaugh take his seat on the court (assuming the FBI doesn’t find something new and explosive or at least two Republicans decide they can’t abide him) and then look to the future. I’d do this in three steps.
1. McConnell must apologize. The root of all this madness is Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal even to consider Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. McConnell’s alleged reason was that the next president should make that choice, even though Obama had nearly a year left in his term. It was an outrageous and shocking breach of protocol, and Democrats remain rightly incensed.
Republicans like to cite the Senate’s defeat of Robert Bork, chosen by President Reagan in 1987, as the original sin that led to today’s dysfunction. That’s ludicrous. Bork was granted a hearing and was rejected for what opponents considered his extreme views. Six Republicans were among those who voted no. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Since that time, nearly every justice nominated by Republican and Democratic presidents alike has been approved by a wide bipartisan margin.
McConnell needs to acknowledge publicly the damage he did to the Senate and negotiate an agreement that neither party will try such a maneuver again. Leaders of both major parties should restore the 60-vote margin needed to avoid a filibuster, which would encourage presidents to choose consensus candidates for the court rather than extreme ideologues. In other words, they need to return to “regular order,” the breakdown of which the late senator John McCain cited when he voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act.
2. The court should be temporarily expanded. In writing about the lunacy that the Senate may fall into if the Democrats seek revenge for Garland, some have predicted that they may try to expand the size of the court in order to offset the conservative majority. As with the possible impeachment of Kavanaugh, that seems likely to set off an endless series of tit-for-tat actions.
But by temporarily expanding the court by one seat, from nine to 10, Congress could acknowledge the outrageousness of what happened to Garland and send a clear message that it won’t happen again. Appoint a 10th justice now, and the next time a justice leaves the court, let it shrink back to nine.
3. Trump should nominate Garland. Temporarily expanding the court from nine to 10 justices accomplishes nothing if President Trump simply chooses another candidate from the list that the Federalist Society has provided him. Trump should be part of the negotiations over how to fix the process. And he, McConnell, and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer should all agree that the 10th justice will be none other than Judge Garland. Garland, a moderate, would be an ideal consensus choice; before McConnell nixed him, some Republican senators had said he was someone they could support.
Trump, needless to say, would have to demonstrate that he is capable of acting for the good of the country rather than simply indulging his animal instincts. It’s not likely. Then again, nothing I am suggesting here is likely.
The tragedy is that extreme polarization and partisan warfare are tearing down every institution of government, including the Supreme Court. I think the record is clear that Republicans are to blame far more than the Democrats. But they both need to be part of the solution — if there is to be any solution.