WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans promised this week not to hold hearings or meet with anyone President Barack Obama nominates to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. The Senate GOP wants the next president to choose Scalia's successor. But the partisan fight hasn't only divided Congress -- it also has state attorneys general, who frequently supervise cases argued before the high court, split along party lines.
Blocking Obama's nominee "is political obstinacy," Maine Attorney General Janet Mills (D) told The Huffington Post at a recent event in the capital. "It's irrational. The court needs a ninth justice. It'll block decision-making in a manner that's so nearly unprecedented, it's not justified."
Attorneys general are their states' top lawyers and are often tasked with defending state laws before the Supreme Court. If Scalia is not replaced, several cases before the Supreme Court could be upended. Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's office, for example, is defending a controversial law on abortion restrictions and challenging the president's immigration overhaul, along with dozens of other GOP-led states. Both cases are expected to be decided this term, and would be affected by a 4-to-4 split.
But attorneys general are also elected officials and ambitious politicians -- the joke is that "AG" stands for "aspiring governor -- and they aren't above wading into political fray. And on this issue, Republican attorneys general are echoing their Senate cohorts.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R), who called Scalia's death a tragedy, said the next Supreme Court justice should be appointed by the incoming president, whether Democrat or a Republican, because the person has to be confirmed by the Senate.
"It's not going to happen this session in a presidential year, it's not," she said.
Bondi and Mills both attended the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) winter meeting at a Ritz-Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. Speaking at the event, Mills said there are "plenty of people out there without a political agenda" who would qualify for a seat on the high court, and there have been numerous nominations made to the federal court during the last year of a president's term. "That's not a new thing," she said.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller (D) said the top attorneys have "strong thoughts" about the issue. "I think the constitution is very clear, [the president] should go ahead, and they should consider and vote on a nominee," he said.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R) acknowledged that it's the president's job to nominate someone, and "that's how the process works." But he noted that Republicans seem to be following the model set forth by Vice President Joe Biden back when he was chairman of the Senate judiciary committee.
Biden said in 1992 that if a Supreme Court justice resigned during the election year, then the president should not name a nominee until the campaign season is over, although he promised to consider a moderate nominee. Senate Republicans have pointed to Biden's example, but the vice president argued this week that the situations are not similar, because there was no vacancy at the time he made his remarks.
As to whether he thinks Senate Republicans should hold hearings and meet with the nominee, Strange said, "I'm going to leave that to them."
Senate Republicans have promised they'll block anyone Obama nominates -- no matter who it is. They have argued that president shouldn't nominate, and the Senate shouldn't consider, Supreme Court picks until the election is over. There's no evidence that presidents give up that right in their final terms. But Senate Republicans have held firm, and even claimed that they're refusing to hold hearings in order to protect Obama's eventual nominee from a sure-to-be partisan process.
"If, in fact, the Republicans in the Senate take a posture that defies the Constitution, defies logic, is not supported by tradition simply because of politics, then invariably what you're going to see is a further deterioration in the ability of any president to make any judicial appointments,” Obama told reporters on Wednesday.
Mills, the Maine Democrat, argued that the situation is too urgent to be left up to partisan bickering. "There are major, major issues of constitutional dimension, and great public policy issues that need to be addressed by a full court," she said.
"It's irresponsible for anybody for political reasons, to say that this president --who was elected to a full-four year term, not three years and two months -- [should not] be able to nominate somebody for the highest court in the land," she added.