The Trump administration is poised to pay back many of its general election supporters with a Supreme Court pick in the mold of, as the new vice president recently described him, “the late, great Antonin Scalia.”
President Trump on Monday morning announced via Twitter that he has made his choice of a nominee for the empty seat on the Supreme Court and that he will announce his decision Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. The move represents an acceleration of the original timetable, presumably in part to deflect attention from the growing controversy that has swirled around Trump’s executive order banning refugees and residents of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.
The addition of a Republican appointee to the court will roughly restore the balance of conservative and liberal justices that had prevailed prior to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last year. But the selection is heavily freighted with significance for both Trump’s supporters and his political opponents for at least two more reasons.
Many conservatives had reservations about supporting Trump during the election because of concerns about his character, conflicts of interest, and policies. But they came around when he promised to select a justice from a list of candidates assembled by the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society, reasoning that their highest duty was to prevent Hillary Clinton from creating a liberal majority on the court.
After a chaotic first week of his presidency, they will be looking to Trump’s pick as justification of their support for a candidate whose actions in office have so far confirmed many of those initial fears.
Liberals will likely greet this appointee with unconcealed anger. Scalia’s vacant seat was held open by the Republican-controlled Senate that, in defiance of all precedent, refused to allow a vote on President Obama’s nominee last year. There have been suggestions of an almost unprecedented filibuster of the nominee unless Trump surprises with a moderate selection.
So far, that looks very unlikely. The smart money has the short list down to three:
Many believe the frontrunner to be Judge Neil Gorsuch who sits on the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver. A 49-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer, Gorsuch clerked for sitting Justice Anthony Kennedy before spending time in private practice and serving in the George W. Bush Justice Department.
Another is Judge Thomas Hardiman, of the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Pittsburgh. Hardiman is considered a tough law-and-order judge; he wrote an opinion (later affirmed by the Supreme Court) that held mandatory strip searches of all arrestees is not a violation of the “unreasonable search” clause in the Fourth Amendment. A Georgetown University Law School graduate, he is 51 years old.
A third is Judge William Pryor, of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Birmingham. The oldest of the candidates at 54, Pryor was a popular Alabama attorney general before becoming a judge. In one of the notable episodes of his prosecutorial career, in 2003 he called for the removal of Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore over his refusal to obey a federal court order to remove a sculpture featuring the 10 Commandments from his courthouse. At the time, Pryor said that while he disagreed with the ruling, it was not acceptable for Moore to violate it.
All three of the nominees appear to be strong opponents of abortion rights, something that many of Trump’s supporters view as a “litmus test” for the nomination, even though the administration itself insists that there is no such test.