Scalia’s death raises the stakes but also the question of reforms

The presidential election campaign all of a sudden got more contentious, more exciting, and more important with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the leading conservative on the Court.

The voters on November 8 will now decide not only who occupies the White House after President Obama, and who controls the U.S. Congress, but also who, conservatives or liberals, will control the third branch of the American political system, the Supreme Court.

With Scalia gone, the Court is tied, 4 – 4, between conservative and liberal justices. An Obama appointment would almost certainly swing the Court to a liberal majority and, for the first time since 1972, the justices appointed by Democratic presidents would outnumber those appointed by Republican presidents. The change would be monumental.

The Republicans in the Senate led by majority leader Mitch McConnell have instantly made it clear that they have no intention to consider an Obama nominee, no what who that is. The decision to appoint Scalia’s replacement should be made by the next president. But Obama is not elected to a three-year but to a four-year term. He has almost a year left in office and he has, rightly, declared that he intends to nominate a new justice. So we are in for a big fight, a complicating, new factor in an election campaign already fraught with uncertainty and tension.

McConnell, who famously said during Obama’s first term that his primary political goal was to make sure that Obama was not reelected now wants to deny the president, who has already appointed two new high court justices, the chance to appoint a third. McConnell’s stern “no” could have serious election implications for the Republicans and their goal to keep their Senate majority, as NYT’s Nate Cohn outlines. We’ll see how this plays out.

The death of Scalia is also an important reminder of how totally unpredictable the system of appointing Supreme Court justices is. It’s time to change what’s been, rightly, called an undemocratic system by doing away with life time appointments and create more orderly nomination procedures with term limits and a retirement age. In Minnesota, to which I presently spend a lot of attention, the retirement age for the state’s highest court is 70. That’s a bit young, maybe, but why not 75? And why not a 20-year term limit? Or both?

Sadly, such reforms are seldom part of the American political dialogue. They should be, particularly as the politicization of the Supreme Court shows no signs of abating.

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