Trejos: Filibuster against Supreme Court nominee sets Democrats up for failure

Jose Trejos, Columnist

Ever since the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the next appointment to the Supreme Court has been a major issue in American politics. President Donald Trump has nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the nomination has come under fire from Democrats who resent the failure of President Barack Obama to successfully appoint a justice. To the delight of the Democrats’ progressive wing, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced last week that he will call for a filibuster of the Gorsuch nomination. This is an easy way for Democrats to score points with their progressive base, but it is a foolish and short-sighted plan that will severely hurt their interests if carried out.

The biggest problem with Schumer’s desire to filibuster Gorsuch is simply that Democrats don’t actually have any real problems with him. Throughout Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings, Democrats have generally objected to his originalist philosophy — the belief that the Constitution should be interpreted based on its original public understanding — but complaining about the fact that a Republican nominee would be at least somewhat conservative is meaningless. Despite ruthless scrutiny over a decade of his rulings, the Democrats have found no substantially objectionable incidents. His record and disposition have been praised by the likes of the American Bar Association as ideal for a place on the Supreme Court, and he is widely known as a genuinely principled and brilliant judge. Indeed, when Gorsuch was appointed to the 10th Circuit in 2006, he received the unanimous consent of the Senate. Strangely enough, it seems Democrats do not have much of an issue with Gorsuch himself, even as they prepare to use the most extreme measure available to oppose a judicial nominee.

Instead, Democrats largely are acting on a grudge over the rejection of Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee. Garland was not given a hearing for nearly a year after being nominated, a fact multiple Democrats brought up during Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing and which led prominent liberals to call for retaliation against Gorsuch. The problem with this logic, aside from the clear pettiness, is that filibustering Gorsuch will not change Garland’s rejection. Even if the filibuster succeeded, Democrats would be forced to either accept a likely less-qualified nominee to follow him, or to repeatedly filibuster every nominee Trump sends out for at least four years. The latter option would severely impair the functioning of the judicial branch for years and thus inflict harm on the entire American system of government, and would cause one to wonder whether the Democratic Party is capable of governing responsibly at all.

However, the clearest reason why Democrats should not filibuster Gorsuch is not the consequences if they succeed, but the natural result when they inevitably do not. Republicans currently have available what is known as the “nuclear option,” abolishing the filibuster for judicial appointments. Though the nuclear option is accurately seen as an extremist option that defies historical norms and breaks with conservative governing principles, Republicans widely justify its use after the Democrats were the last ones to bring it back during Obama’s presidency. Gorsuch is a popular nominee, supported by the large plurality of the American public, including the majority of independents. If Democrats force the Republicans to deploy the nuclear option, they will look like an unreasonable group opposing an exemplary nominee out of sheer partisanship.

More importantly, the Democrats cannot afford to lose the filibuster during the first term of a Republican presidency with our incredibly old Supreme Court. Democrats may question the purpose of the filibuster if using it could just get it abolished, but abolishing the filibuster would be incredibly unpopular if it was done to pass a partisan or unpopular nominee. Indeed, part of the reason Trump nominated a judge famous for his principled originalism, who could easily rule against him later on, is likely that such a judge would allow him to abolish the filibuster without taking a political hit. If the Democrats throw away the filibuster for the sake of meaningless posturing, they could easily go on to see the likes of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg replaced by an openly partisan hack who would ruthlessly use their power to aid the Trump presidency.

The Democratic leadership is apparently so afraid of its radicalizing base that it is about to sacrifice one of its most potent tools against Trump to appease it. Schumer should abandon his plan for a filibuster and just let Gorsuch be confirmed in a face-saving, party-line vote. The Democrats must learn to choose their battles if they want to achieve real victories against the Trump presidency.

Jose Trejos is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.