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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sen. Coons: ‘Infection’ Of Partisan Dysfunction Threatens Supreme Court

Sen. Chris Coons D-Del., pictured here in 2014, is critical of Senate Republicans' promise not to consider any Supreme Court nominee put forward by President Obama. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Sen. Chris Coons D-Del., pictured here in 2014, is critical of Senate Republicans’ promise not to consider any Supreme Court nominee put forward by President Obama. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

The battle over the next U.S. Supreme Court appointee is raging in Washington. Senate Republicans have now promised to refrain from holding any hearings or votes on a nominee chosen by President Obama before the end of his term.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, about what should happen next.

“After seven years of this grinding, unpleasant, unproductive fight between the Republicans in Congress and President Obama, this moment threatens to spread that infection to the last remaining branch, the Supreme Court, which has generally functioned during the last seven years,” says Sen. Coons.

Interview Highlights: Christopher Coons

What did you mean when you said the president should nominate a ‘centrist’ to the Supreme Court?

“What I mean is an eminently qualified, obviously confirmable nominee. Justice Scalia was one of the most outspoken, one of the most conservative, I think most activist justices in American history. Some have been arguing for President Obama to respond in kind by nominating a comparably progressive judge. I don’t think that’s the right course here. What I am concerned about is the functioning of our constitutional order. The Republicans have already stood up and said, in lockstep, that they will prevent even a hearing, regardless of who the president nominates. I think he needs to challenge that and put forward someone who every American will look at and say, by their record, by their temperament, by their recent experience they deserve a hearing and confirmation.”

Are any of the names thrown around anyone you would consider a centrist?

“Well, for example Sri Srinivasan, who currently serves on the D.C. Circuit court is someone I got to know during his confirmation process because I was on the Judiciary Committee at the time. He was confirmed unanimously by both the Judiciary Committee and the United States Senate just three years ago, and he is someone who appeals to both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.”

Do you think, even if the president were to nominate Sri Srinivasan, would the Republicans even hold a hearing after their statements yesterday?

“No, and I’m very concerned by what message that sends about our constitutional order. Look, after seven years of this grinding, unpleasant, unproductive fight between the Republicans in Congress and President Obama, this moment threatens to spread that infection to the last remaining branch, the Supreme Court, which has generally functioned during the last seven years. In this current Supreme Court term, there’s a whole series of very important cases that affect everything from affirmative action to abortion, from immigration to unions, where to have the justices unable to reach a majority decision for at least a year threatens to drag the Supreme Court into the dysfunction that has been sadly the case in the Senate over the last six years.”

Could you convince your colleagues to agree to a hearing?

“I am making that case, personally, to Republican senators with whom I am friendly, and I know there are some who are quite skeptical of the position McConnell has taken. McConnell, when he became majority leader after the last election, said that now they’re going to bring the Senate back to functioning, and I think a key point in the 2014 election was that many Americans were tired of the gridlock, and McConnell has made some modest progress in the last couple of months, in the last year, in moving bills forward and I have heard positive things about that. Now, with this stance, I think McConnell is breaking that promise and is threatening to plunge us back into complete gridlock.”

On the argument by Republicans that the people should have a say, after electing the next president who will have a clear mandate

“Well, the American people did have a clear say in this. That’s what the 2012 election was about. President Obama was elected to a second four-year term, and the Constitution says that the president shall nominate and the Senate shall provide advice and consent. Advice and consent does not consist of simply putting your hands over your ears and saying ‘nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, we refuse to even have a hearing,’ no matter who the nominee is. That’s continuing this seven-year run of dramatic and public disrespect for the institution of the presidency and it sadly invites the Democrats in the Senate to behave the same way if the outcome of the next election puts a Republican in control of the White House.”

What are the chances that the president will nominate someone, there will be a hearing and that person will be at least voted on this year?

“I’m confident President Obama will nominate someone, and I remain hopeful that there will be a hearing, but given the statements by every Republican on the Judiciary Committee just yesterday, I think chances that there will be a hearing are rapidly fading and chances that this will become a core issue in the 2016 campaign are steadily escalating.”

Is Trump a person you could work with if he became the next president?

“I don’t know Donald Trump. I’ve never met him. All I know about him is what I’ve seen in terms of his speeches and public pronouncements, which are frankly gravely concerning to me. He has said a whole series of things that I think go against the foundational values of the United States, not least of which is, I think, the dangerous and irresponsible pronouncement he made that we should be conducting surveillance on Muslims in the United States, we should be seeking to deport Muslims from the United States and we should enact a complete ban on allowing any Muslims into the United States. That sort of religious test for admissibility to the United States runs directly counter to our founders’ vision and our core values, and frankly every other Republican presidential candidate said so when he came out with that position. I don’t know the man, and if he’s elected I think part of my job is to find a way to work with him, but I think that would be very difficult given what I’m hearing from him on this campaign so far.”

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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