A former student recently asked for my opinion on Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the current Supreme Court vacancy. As I told him, my concerns about Gorsuch pale in comparison to my deep disquiet over the Senate’s refusal to “advise and consent” with respect to President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland.
Let me be very clear: Had Mitch McConnell and the GOP conducted hearings on Garland’s nomination, and then voted against confirmation, I would have disagreed with the result. But I wouldn’t have been appalled. I wouldn’t have seen a rejection that emerged from the proper process as a dangerous affront to democratic norms and the rule of law.
McConnell’s refusal to follow the standard procedure contemplated by the Constitution and traditionally adhered to by the Senate was a worrisome and unprecedented assault on governmental legitimacy.
If there is one clear distinction between western constitutional systems and the various dictatorships and theocracies around the globe, it is the formers’ emphasis on the importance of fair procedures that everyone, even government, must follow. As I’ve previously argued, the Bill of Rights might justifiably be characterized as a restatement of your mother’s admonition that how you do something can often be more important than what you choose to do.
“The ends do not justify the means” is a fundamental principle of American law.
Adherence to objective and uniform procedures–the institutional means through which governments achieve their ends—is at the core of the rule of law. For ideologues and theocrats, however, achieving the “right” outcome, managing to win one’s preferred outcomes even if that requires ignoring or circumventing accepted rules, is what is important. It’s the age-old conflict between the rule of law and the “rule of men” (aka the exercise of raw power).
I’ve always hated those “Dirty Harry” type movies, where the purported “good guy” foils the villain by breaking the rules. Those movies elevate the ends over the means–just as Mitch McConnell did when he exercised arbitrary power, in defiance of accepted democratic norms, simply because he could.
In an article about Gorsuch, Dahlia Lithwick recently argued that
the nomination is wholly illegitimate. Gorsuch may or may not be a good judge, but there is no principled reason for him to have a hearing when Merrick Garland did not. This is a problem of power, not legal qualifications.
The Democrats have an unpleasant choice to make. They can refuse to participate in Gorsuch’s hearings, implicitly normalizing this sort of thuggish behavior and doing further damage to American law and institutions, or they can participate in the hearings and demonstrate fidelity to the Constitutional process, recognizing that they are thereby tacitly condoning McConnell’s unconscionable breach and arguably encouraging more and further departures from government legitimacy and the rule of law.
Thanks to Mitch McConnell and his desire to flex his legislative muscle, to display to his base and his political opponents alike his power to “steal” a Supreme Court seat, either option will further erode American democracy and diminish respect for American political institutions.