High court pick deserves a fair hearing

The Observer editorial board

Judge Merrick Garland faces strong GOP opposition in his quest for a Supreme Court seat.
Judge Merrick Garland faces strong GOP opposition in his quest for a Supreme Court seat. TNS

In Merrick Garland, President Obama has nominated an eminently qualified jurist for the nation’s highest court.

As the well-respected chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – commonly called the nation’s second highest court – one could argue that Garland is the most qualified jurist Obama could have picked.

After 19 years on the D.C. court, he is seen as a brilliant and even-tempered centrist, one who is well respected by the Supreme Court justices. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, practically dared Obama to nominate him last week, telling the conservative website Newsmax that the president “could easily name Merrick Garland, who is a fine man.” Hatch then added: “He probably won’t do that because this appointment is about the election. So I’m pretty sure he’ll name someone the (liberal Democratic base) wants.”

Now that Obama has indeed named Garland, the GOP’s self-constructed political box squeezes a bit tighter. Most Republicans are sticking to their no-hearings stonewall. Hatch, however, says he’d be open to considering Garland during the lame-duck congressional session, should Hillary Clinton win the White House in November.

That’s rich. So, the Senate would block Obama’s nomination because he’s a lame duck. But a lame-duck Senate would willingly take up the nomination if threatened with prospects of a younger, more liberal nominee from a President-Elect Clinton or perhaps even some unpredictable wildcard from a President-Elect Trump.

It all underscores the hollow, phony quality of GOP leaders’ protestations that their no-hearings stance is “about the principle, not the person,” as our own Sen. Thom Tillis put it.

The real principle has nothing to do with Obama’s lame-duck status, of course. The real animating principle is the same one that has driven the GOP the past seven years: Obama is the enemy. Whatever he wants, block it – even if sensible compromises or the occasional well-qualified nominee gets trampled in the process.

If there’s one context where politicians ought to rise above that, it’s a Supreme Court nomination. Democrats, including the current president and vice president, have played politics in the past with Supreme Court nominations, and shame on them for it.

But by refusing to consider a nominee, the GOP is taking the politics of obstruction to a corrosive and constitutionally questionable new low.

“This is precisely the time when we should play it straight,” Obama rightly noted Wednesday. The Supreme Court is “supposed to be above politics. It has to be. And it should stay that way.”

We hope the voters GOP leaders are so eager to hear from this fall will tell them that this country is sick of the zero-sum games, and doesn’t appreciate having qualified public servants like Garland dragged through the political mud.