Thursday, February 22 , 2018, 1:04 pm | Fair 60º


Jamie Stiehm: Barack Obama Keeps Rosy Eye on History with Thorny Merrick Garland Nomination

Here comes a great courtroom drama, pitting President Barack Obama against the Senate, which will act as judge and jury. The stakes are supremely high, even higher than the presidential race.

Filling the empty seat on the U.S. Supreme Court amounts to changing the balance of power on the aggressively conservative court.

It began in the White House Rose Garden, where Obama presented his pick, Judge Merrick Garland.

The Senate has to “advise and consent” on Supreme Court justices. The House of Representatives has no place in the drama, unfolding as a major heartburner. Senate Republicans have defiantly declared they will not hold hearings on any Obama court nominee, period, and they control the ball.

Doing his part for harmony in this rare tangle of the three branches of government, Obama went out of his way to name the most reasoned man in the land: Garland.

The middle of the road is named after him. How nice to nominate a moderate Midwestern Jew who has earned plaudits from both sides of the political spectrum.

True to form, Obama named someone who went to Harvard and Harvard Law School — he’s a Harvard snob. 

The chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was greeted as a smart choice. Everybody has a good word to say. You can hear the chorus: “Great guy, brings a lot to the table.”

Garland served with Chief Justice John Roberts. He flew to Oklahoma City to investigate the 1995 bombing tragedy that shook the federal building. He prosecuted the bomber, Timothy McVeigh.

In these trying times, Garland’s style is known as evenhanded, in contrast to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the court’s most outspoken conservative for 30 years.

But the Senate’s a slow, languorous animal with a stubborn streak. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is Obama’s antagonist.

From the day Obama became president, McConnell has tried to make him fail.

During a fleeting Senate career, Obama never got close to the elders in the opposite party. He never cared how conflicts and deals got worked out. He was running for president.

As president, Obama never commanded the respect of Republican leaders. He has yet to win a clash of serious Shakespearean proportions in seven years in office — setting aside the Obamacare victory six springs ago in a Democratic Congress.

The court pick is his last chance for a clear victory in a Republican Congress, and he comes at it straight, inviting senators to do the same, even as the daggers in men’s eyes stare back at him.

A fair hearing is all Obama asks in the Rose Garden, he says; he never promises a rose garden.

The Democratic strategy is fixed on pressuring Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the Judiciary Committee chairman with the power to hold a confirmation hearing. He’s a twangy 82, running for re-election in the state that gave Obama his political engine that could.

Some say Senate Republicans are rude to Obama because they’re racist, but many are rude because it’s the way of their world. Gone is the genteel, sedate Senate.

A handful will meet with Garland as a courtesy, as the outstanding judge walks the halls. That’s all.

Let me ’fess up: I wished for a pocket recess appointment. Obama could put someone in place for a year or so, not subject to Senate confirmation.

This short-term action would buttress the nation’s front on reproductive rights, under siege, but Obama chose the harder path to leave his writing on the wall.

McConnell, a crafty strategist, has sounded a note of jester’s irony, citing a so-called “Biden rule” with a straight face on the floor.

“The people should have a say in the court’s direction,” McConnell said.

Vice President Joe Biden must be crimson at words he spoke in 1992, as then-Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, suggesting court appointments in a presidential election year become too political.

Biden never addresses the painful memory of Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the court. He gave Thomas a pass to a vote only one year — 12 months — before President George H.W. Bush ran for re-election.

If they had voted on arch-conservative Thomas (52-48) late in a president’s term, then we have to have Garland. Call it justice delayed.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. The opinions expressed are her own.

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