Illustrated by Kaileen Smith
Illustration by Kaileen Smith

Just when you thought the US political landscape couldn’t get any more complicated, the Supreme Court is facing a likely impasse for its 2016 term. With a newly vacant seat on the bench, upcoming decisions are more likely to result in a 4-4 deadlock and render the highest court in the land virtually useless.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died on Feb. 13, ending his near 30-year term. Appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, Scalia was known for vivid and articulate writing that defended his ultra-conservative opinions and strict originalist reading of the Constitution. Just last year, he wrote a scathing dissent of gay marriage and argued that black university students should attend “slower-track schools” in critique of the affirmative action policy.

Scalia was one of the five justices appointed by Republican presidents on the nine-justice Supreme Court. Without him, what would normally be a 5-4 conservative/liberal split will likely result in several 4-4 decisions — at least until a new justice is appointed.

The Court is scheduled to hear cases on several important issues this year, like teachers’ unions, deportation of permanent residents and free-of-charge medical coverage for birth control drugs. But without a ninth justice, the Supreme Court could be caught up in deadlocked cases for months, which is why it is imperative that President Obama and the Senate work together to fill Scalia’s seat.

As part of the legislative branch’s checks and balances, the Senate has the power to approve or reject presidential appointments to the Supreme Court, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) is taking full advantage of this power.

About an hour after Scalia’s death was confirmed, McConnell said he has no intention of approving anyone Obama nominates, thus continuing the nearly six-year standoff the president has had with the Senate.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their Supreme Court justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,” McConnell said.

However, shortly after McConnell made his statement, Obama announced his intention to nominate a new justice before he leaves office.

“I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibility to nominate a successor in due time,” Obama said at a press conference. “There will be plenty of time for me to do so and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote … [These responsibilities] are bigger than any one party, they are about our democracy.”

McConnell is hoping there will be a Republican in the White House next year, one who would replace Scalia with another conservative-leaning judge. But leaving the seat open until the 2017 presidential inauguration — or, more realistically, until several months after — is a dangerous move, and one the Senate should not make just to have a conservative majority in the Supreme Court.

Filling the empty seat on the bench doesn’t just affect Senate Republicans, but all Americans. Many of our enumerated civil liberties have been secured as a result of Supreme Court precedents — Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade and Miranda v. Arizona to name a few.

If the justices face a deadlock on any of the cases they hear, the ruling in the lower court would stand. This may not sound like a huge deal, but these lower court rulings won’t apply outside of their own jurisdictions. Issues could be litigated again and again in courts all over the country, potentially resulting in conflicting rulings and political inconsistency.

The Senate judiciary’s immediate rejection of any Obama nominee indicates a fundamental problem for our whole political system — it shows that party lines have cut deeply into the Supreme Court, making the highest U.S. authority on justice a matter of mere partisanship.

However, because of the Republican-controlled Senate, Obama needs to be careful about who he nominates if he wants the Senate to approve them.

If he wants to get a liberal leaning of the Supreme Court and nominates someone too far to the left, the Senate will just deny his nomination. Nominating someone conservative enough to get through the Senate might give the Supreme Court a chance of being a functional political body, but then again, they may simply deny anyone Obama nominates — whether they are on the far-left, middle or even slightly right. If the Senate listens to McConnell, Obama could nominate a saint tomorrow and it still wouldn’t accept the nomination, judicial review be damned.

Obama should appoint someone soon and he should not have to tiptoe around the Senate to do so. Checks and balances are important, but the Senate needs to realize it is not the only player in U.S. politics. It is one of Obama’s enumerated powers as president to appoint a Supreme Court justice, and McConnell’s outright denial of the nominee before he or she is even announced threatens the U.S.’ already divisive partisan relations. But more importantly, it disrupts people’s trust in the U.S. justice system.

If Obama and the Senate cannot work together to appoint a new Supreme Court justice, then the US government is telling its people that party lines are more important than upholding constitutional law. Appointing a Supreme Court justice is bigger than the two parties at odds with each other — it is about maintaining a functioning government that can adequately serve its people, no matter which side of the aisle they stand on.