Not so long ago, state Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce opposed filling a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court in a presidential election year.
Pearce preferred government gridlock to a fully staffed court. He didn’t care if the justice system bogged down as long as his party gained an advantage from the delay.
It was February 2016, the frigid start of presidential primaries. Antonin Scalia, an associate justice of the Supreme Court, had died at age 79.
Scalia had been a conservative vote on the court for 30 years. Senate Republicans wanted Scalia replaced with someone in his own image.
To achieve their goal, they threw a monkey wrench into the government they were supposed to run.
Democratic President Barack Obama had about 11 months remaining in his second and final term. That was plenty of time for him to choose someone for the Supreme Court, and for the Senate to thoroughly consider his nominee.
But with Republicans in control of the Senate, they could thwart Obama by doing nothing.
Obama forged ahead anyway. He nominated Merrick Garland, a federal appellate court judge in Washington, D.C., for the Supreme Court.
As they promised, Republican senators refused to consider Garland. Pearce, then a congressman representing New Mexico, applauded their inaction.
“While I am sure Judge Garland is a qualified and competent judge, we should not let President Obama decide who will fill the shoes of the late Justice Scalia,” Pearce said.
His candor was startling, though Pearce at first didn’t realize he’d revealed himself as an obstructionist.
Pearce admitted Garland would have been a competent addition to the nation’s highest court. But Pearce said shelving Garland’s nomination was fine because Obama was from the rival party.
For years, Pearce had come home to New Mexico and complained about the political infighting in Washington. He made speeches at the state Capitol about how destructive partisan politics had become.
As it turned out, Pearce didn’t object to vicious partisanship in Washington. He only minded losing.
To get a political victory, Pearce was happy if Republican senators let the Supreme Court operate with eight members instead of nine for more than a year.
Pearce didn’t care that a shorthanded court created the possibility of tie votes crippling businesses involved in civil lawsuits, or that justice might be denied to one side or the other in criminal cases.
The politics of the moment were all that mattered to Pearce. He and the Republican senators hoped their candidate would win the presidency. Then a conservative would fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
That’s how it turned out. Donald Trump was elected president, and he nominated Neil Gorsuch.
Gorsuch took his seat on the Supreme Court in April 2017, some 14 months after Scalia died.
The politics of filling a Supreme Court vacancy will be even uglier now, after the death of liberal Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Trump could lose his bid for reelection in six weeks, and be out of office in four months.
Likewise, Republicans could lose control of the Senate following the November election.
With their hold on power in doubt, Trump and most of his pals in the Senate will rush to replace Ginsburg.
Politics is their motivation, and politics is all that can stop them.
A rush to judgment in replacing Ginsburg will be risky for Republican senators in tough races this fall.
Four are especially susceptible to a backlash. Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Thom Tillis of North Carolina could alienate voters if they participate in Trump’s plan to fill the Supreme Court vacancy before the election.
In the interest of self-preservation, they might hold off Trump. Polls rather than conscience probably will guide them.
In Colorado, Gardner knows he could weaken his reelection bid by backing Trump this time.
McSally keeps losing ground in her race against Democrat Mark Kelly in Arizona. She might be desperate enough to give Trump what he wants in hopes of invigorating her fading campaign.
Waiting until the election is over and the president is sworn in would be the fairest course for selecting Ginsburg’s successor.
But fairness won’t matter anymore than it did when Pearce said a qualified nominee should be blocked.
Trump will try to force his hand. The question is whether enough Republican senators will resist him to save their own careers.