In this photo provided by the Public Information Office Supreme Court of the U.S., Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., and fellow justices watch as Neil Gorsuch signs the Constitutional Oath after Roberts administered the Constitutional Oath in a private ceremony, Monday, April 10, 2017, in the Justices' Conference Room at the Supreme Court in Washington. How do you keep a new Supreme Court justice’s head from getting too big? Start by making him take notes and answer the door at the justices’ private meetings. Then, remind him he speaks last at those discussions. Finally, assign him the job of listening to gripes about the food at the court’s cafeteria.  (Franz Jantzen/Public Information Office Supreme Court of the U.S. via AP)
In this photo provided by the Public Information Office Supreme Court of the U.S., Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., and fellow justices watch as Neil Gorsuch signs the Constitutional Oath after Roberts administered the Constitutional Oath in a private ceremony, Monday, April 10, 2017, in the Justices' Conference Room at the Supreme Court in Washington. How do you keep a new Supreme Court justice’s head from getting too big? Start by making him take notes and answer the door at the justices’ private meetings. Then, remind him he speaks last at those discussions. Finally, assign him the job of listening to gripes about the food at the court’s cafeteria. (Franz Jantzen/Public Information Office Supreme Court of the U.S. via AP)

Supreme Court debate roils along

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By Maria Curi | maria-curi@uiowa.edu

After contentious debate over Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination, Senate Republicans resorted to changing the longstanding rules of the chamber — the number of votes needed to confirm a high-court justice were reduced from 60 to 51 by killing the filibuster. Despite the change, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the move will allow the Senate to go back to its original function.

“I consider it this simple: getting us back to the way the Senate functions on judicial nominations between 1789 and 2001, when there hadn’t been any filibusters of judges,” Grassley said. “And then you have this filibuster, which was the first time in the history of the country that a partisan filibuster was lodged against a Supreme Court person- so I think it gets us back to the practice of the Senate.”

Supreme Court nominee Abe Fortas was filibustered by Republicans in 1968, and President Lyndon Johnson withdrew the nomination at Fortas’ request.

Cary Covington, a University of Iowa associate professor of political science, said ideology may now infiltrate judge nominations at a higher degree.

“So if you think of policy preferences on Supreme Court nominee as sort of spreading from left to right like we do, liberal to conservative, if you’ve got a Republican or conservative majority, then the idea is you have to worry about filibuster, then you have to move sufficiently far to the left and nominate a candidate sufficiently moderate to appeal to the support of that 60th senator,” Covington said. “And that person [Supreme Court nominee] would probably be more moderate than someone who only had to appeal to the support of 51 senators. So in that sense, the Senate now is free to pursue smaller minimum winning coalitions, which means nominees who will be closer to the interests of the more ideologically extreme group of senators.”

Grassley said the change in votes will not be a threat to Republicans if Democrats gain control of the Senate.

“Here’s why a Republican shouldn’t worry about that: Let’s say, I’ll use Clinton and Obama, there were two vacancies in Clinton and there were two vacancies in Obama, and Republicans never filibustered,” Grassley said. “So as long as Republicans have never in our history filibustered a Supreme Court justice, then I assume if we get to be in the minority, then we wouldn’t do it anyway, so the fact that it’s 51 instead of 60 isn’t really going to affect anything.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks during an interview with Daily Iowan reporters in his Washington office on March 14. (The Daily Iowan/Grace Pateras)

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks during an interview with Daily Iowan reporters in his Washington office on March 14. (The Daily Iowan/Grace Pateras)

Although all other federal appointments already only require a simple-majority vote, Covington said the shift applies differently to the Supreme Court.

“Historically, the public has thought of the courts as being above politics,” he said. “To quote Chief Justice Roberts, ‘They’re the umpires. They call the balls or the strikes; they’re not a player in the game.’ And what this action is going to do is make the nominees look more like players on one team or the other rather than umpires who are neutral and above the conflicts of the teams.”

Gorsuch entered the Senate chambers as a climate of stark division among the American public over what the role of the high court is and deep ideological divides in Congress endures.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of the American public says the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution in its original form, while an opposing identical share of Americans say justices should interpret the Constitution in a manner that takes current times into account.

“If you look at public-opinion polls, you’ll see that historically, the Supreme Court has a higher level of trust than the presidency or the Congress,” Covington said. “You’ll also see that recently, it has begun to lose that trust, and these kinds of actions are only going to accelerate the politicizing of the public’s views of the Supreme Court.”

Tim Hagle, a UI associate political-science professor, said the refusal of Republicans to consider former President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland contributed to the contentious atmosphere.

“The folks that were talking about wanting a compromise; they didn’t want another conservative on the court,” Hagle said. “Democrats were upset because Republicans didn’t hold any hearings on [Garland]. They were basically trying all these things, but they were all unsuccessful.”

Grassley said it was common sense not to consider Garland.

“So you have the pattern of Democrat senators, when you have a Republican president, saying that if there’s a vacancy in the last year, the new president should make the appointment,” Grassley said. “So then we actually ended up having a vacancy in the last year of Obama’s presidency. So since you can’t have one rule for Democrat presidents and one rule for Republican presidents, it’s just common sense that the vacant seat- Garland shouldn’t have been approved until after the people had a voice.”