Sens. Johnson, Baldwin clash on filling Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat

    Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson (official Senate photos)
    Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson (official Senate photos)

    In a phone interview from quarantine, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) spoke with Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to explain why he favors a quick nomination and confirmation to fill the seat left vacant after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday, despite his assertion in 2016 that “Instead of a lame-duck president and Senate nominating and confirming, a new president and Senate — elected by the people only a few months from now — should make that important decision.” 

    Johnson “disputed the notion that he was reversing his position,” Gilbert reports, “saying the situation in 2020 is different than 2016 because the same party now controls both the White House and the Senate.”

    Back in 2016, Gilbert points out, Johnson opposed holding Senate confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who was nominated nine months before the election, saying, “In the politicized atmosphere of an election year, you probably shouldn’t even nominate someone,” he said. “It’s not fair to the nominee, it’s not fair to the court.”

    But this year, Johnson says, “We had divided government.”  

    “That,” he tells Gilbert, “makes all the difference in the world.” 

    Since the party of Donald Trump controls the Senate, it doesn’t matter that we are on the cusp of a national election, Johnson reasons. Either that or he is stating the obvious: the president will have an easier time ramming through his nominee, even if he loses, in a lame duck session, with his party in control of Senate confirmation hearings.

    Johnson’s rationale echoes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who explains his change of heart since 2016 — when he said it would be inappropriate to hold confirmation hearings for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in an election year — by pointing out that both the White House and Senate are controlled by Republicans. That, he suggests, means that the Republican party represents the will of the majority of the American people, regardless of the upcoming election. 

    McConnell said in a statement upon Ginsburg’s death: “Americans re-elected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary.”

    “Once again,” McConnell added, “we will keep our promise. President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

    But the political picture is not quite that clear. The election of 2018 was widely described as a “blue wave,” with Democrats picking up an historic 40 seats to take control of the House of Representatives — their largest gain since 1974. Democrats won about 10 million more total votes in House races across the country than did Republicans. And Trump’s challenger, Joe Biden, is currently ahead in the polls.

    In February of 2016, upon Justice Scalia’s death, McConnell said “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” 

    On Saturday, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) issued the following statement: 

    “The election that will determine our next President and control of the Senate is only 45 days away. Voters across America should be allowed to cast their ballots first, before a Supreme Court nomination and confirmation process moves forward.

    “Majority Leader McConnell and the Senate Majority put in place the standard that Supreme Court nominations would not move forward in an election year,” Baldwin added. “That was the standard imposed on President Obama and the same standard should apply now to President Trump. It’s not only an election year. We are weeks away from an election for President and control of the Senate, and people are voting right now. After the voters have spoken in the election, and the elected President and new Senate have taken office, we can then move forward on a Supreme Court nomination.”

    Ruth Conniff
    Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.