Alan Chartock | I Publius: Obama must walk fine line in Supreme Court pick


GREAT BARRINGTON >> No matter where you live or work, the Supreme Court of the United States is to all of us what the Ayatollah is to Iran.

It is, simply put, the "secret in-charge" of the government. It is so important that it has the ability to override the president and the Congress.

So who are the people who populate the court? They are appointed by the president of the Unite States with the approval of a majority of the Senate. That means that if the Republicans in the Senate decide to filibuster, 60 votes are needed to confirm the candidate.

With the death of Antonin Scalia, the leader of the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court, President Obama is going to have to race the clock to get a nomination through the Senate.

It won't be easy. The Republicans hold a clear majority in the Senate. They will be working as one to deny Obama his choice because they know that the traditional 5-4 vote on the court in favor of conservative causes may be turned around.

The list of devastating rulings by the present court, ranging from Citizens United, which permits basically unlimited corporate campaign contributions to Gore v. Bush, which elected a president who hadn't actually won, shows the court to be an unannounced arm of the Republican Party. Just as the Ayatollah controls what the government does in Iran, the Supreme Court does the same thing here.

So how can the president get his nominee through when the Republicans insist that the nomination be left to the next president? The Republicans are playing with fire. They have to defend a lot more Senate seats than the Democrats do in the next election.

The nomination to the court will be a huge part of these elections so it is crucial that the president nominate the right person, probably a moderate and maybe even a Republican moderate who would be inclined to vote his way, someone like Sandra Day O'Connor. That way the Republicans in the Senate who gang up on Obama's nominee will be seen as obstructionists.

If a Democrat wins the presidency, he or she will probably have several chances to nominate other judges. So if they fight Obama's nominee now, the Republicans risk losing a lot more than one nominee who may be closer to their philosophy than any liberals a future Democratic president might nominate.

In fact, those Republican senators who are fighting for their seats might have to vote for a reasonable Obama nominee rather than being seen as obstructionist and potentially lose their re-elections. The Republican senators who will make this decision are between a rock and a hard place.

Obama has some serious choices to make. If he nominates an unreconstructed liberal, he risks alienating all the Republicans. On the other hand, we are seeing a massive shift to the left in Democratic politics; hence the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders.

In South Carolina over half the primary voters are black. So Obama has to decide whether he wants to play it smart or whether he wants to shoot the moon and go for it.

He could well nominate one of those judges he appointed to a lesser court who were almost unanimously confirmed. That would make it tough for the Republicans who voted for him or her the first time around to now vote against an appointment to the high court.

It is absolutely necessary that the president find a nominee with very clean skirts. Any hint of scandal, be it nepotism, sexual high jinks or illegal nannies, would provide ammunition to the Republican opposition.

You had better believe that the president will have people vetting the nominee. Most of us would not get through that process.

Seldom has so much been riding on an appointment to the high court. All of a sudden, things are getting very interesting.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.


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