HKS Profs Predict Difficult Supreme Court Nomination Process

Following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin G. Scalia on Saturday, faculty from the Kennedy School of Government predicted a difficult confirmation process for whomever President Barack Obama nominates as a replacement, but were doubtful it would have a large impact on the upcoming presidential election.

Scalia in 1992
Antonin G. Scalia speaks on November 18, 1992 in this Crimson file photo. Scalia, who passed away over the weekend, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1960.

Scalia’s death leaves the Supreme Court divided ideologically, with four justices who tend to vote liberal and four who tend to vote conservative.

Kennedy School professor David R. Gergen said Obama will face an “uphill battle” to get his nominee confirmed in the U.S. Senate, which Republicans currently control.

“He doesn’t have the votes,” Gergen said. “He’ll need a way to break away a number of moderate Republicans to have a chance of seeing his nomination go through.”


Echoing Gergen, Kennedy School professor Alex Keyssar ’69 said he thinks “it’s very unlikely” the Senate will confirm any nominee.

The professors referenced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s assertion that the Senate would not approve any of Obama’s nominees when discussing the likelihood of a nomination being confirmed. On Saturday, McConnell said the “vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Maya Sen ’00, an assistant professor at the Kennedy School, said “it’s unusual for the Senate to move along presidential appointments during an election year.”

The political implications of the Republicans blocking Obama’s nominee are unclear, although such an action could decrease the GOP’s popularity in the upcoming Senate elections in November, according to Matthew A. Baum, professor of global communications at the Kennedy School.

The Republican-controlled Senate blocking Obama’s nomination “may not be popular in some of the more moderate states, where the Republican candidates aren’t that secure, especially in the Senate,” Baum said. “It could possibly have repercussions more broadly for moderates and independents who may not like the standoff.”

Kennedy School lecturer Richard J. Parker agreed that the gridlock could prove dour for Republicans’ prospects for election to the Senate.

“If McConnell follows through, this will alienate a lot of independents from the Republican party,” Parker said.

As far as the presidential election is concerned, “Scalia’s death has touched off a political firestorm that is likely to grow in the months ahead,” Gergen said, adding that this election season is unique because all three branches of government could see a shift in party and ideological control.

“It’s not inconceivable that it could cost the Republicans the Senate or cost the Republicans the presidency,” Baum said. “I don’t think it’s likely but it is possible.”

While Scalia’s death could potentially affect the composition of the federal government, Keyssar doubts the nomination process will affect the presidential race to a large degree.

“I don’t think it will affect the election very much,” Keyssar said. “It will provide a focus for an already bitter and sharply partisan election...but I don’t think it will make a particular impact.”

—Staff writer Nathaniel J. Hiatt can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nathaniel_hiatt.


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