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UPDATE 5-Trump promises successor to Ginsburg 'without delay', sparking political battle

20 Sep 2020 / 03:31 H.

    (Adds details on potential nominee, Democratic reaction)

    By Lawrence Hurley and Steve Holland

    WASHINGTON, Sept 19 (Reuters) - A fierce political battle shaped up over the future of the U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday, with President Donald Trump saying he would quickly nominate a successor to liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a move that would tip the court further to the right.

    Ginsburg's death on Friday from cancer after 27 years on the court gave Trump, who is seeking re-election on Nov. 3, a chance to expand its conservative majority to 6-3 at a time of a gaping political divide in America.

    His short list of potential nominees includes two women jurists he previously elevated to federal appeals courts: Amy Coney Barrett of the Chicago-based 7th Circuit and Barbara Lagoa of the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, according to a source close to the White House.

    "We were put in this position of power and importance to make decisions for the people who so proudly elected us, the most important of which has long been considered to be the selection of United States Supreme Court Justices," Trump said on Twitter. "We have this obligation, without delay!"

    Any nomination would require approval in the Senate, where Trump's Republicans hold a 53-47 majority.

    Democrats are still seething over the Republican Senate's refusal to act on Democratic President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016 after conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died 10 months before that election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said then that the Senate should not act on a court nominee during an election year, a stance he has since reversed.

    Even if Democrats win the White House and a Senate majority in the November election, Trump and McConnell have time as the full new Congress would not be sworn in until Jan. 3

    Senior congressional Democrats raised the prospect of adding additional justices next year to counterbalance Trump's nominees if they win control of the White House and Senate in the November election.

    McConnell, who has made confirmation of Trump's federal judicial nominees a top priority, said the chamber would vote on any Trump nominee.

    Given that they have few tools to block the eventual nomination from passing, Democrats plan to try to rally public opposition to the move.

    "The focus needs to be showing the public what's at stake in this fight. And what's at stake is really people's access to affordable healthcare, workers' rights and women's rights," said Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen in a telephone interview.

    Obama himself on Saturday called on Senate Republicans to honor what he called that "invented" 2016 principle.

    "A basic principle of the law — and of everyday fairness — is that we apply rules with consistency, and not based on what's convenient or advantageous in the moment," Obama said in a statement posted online.

    AMY CONEY BARRETT AND BARBARA LAGOA

    Even before Ginsburg's death, Trump had made public a list of potential nominees.

    Barrett has generated perhaps the most interest in conservative circles. A devout Roman Catholic, she was a legal scholar at Notre Dame Law School in Indiana before Trump appointed her to the 7th Circuit in 2017. A Barrett nomination would likely ignite controversy, as her strong conservative religious views have prompted abortion-rights groups to say that if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she would likely vote to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

    Lagoa has served on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for less than a year after being appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Senate on an 80-15 vote. Prior to that she also spent less than a year in her previous position as the first Latina to serve on the Florida Supreme Court. She previously spent more than a decade as a judge on an intermediate appeals court in Florida.

    Another candidate Trump has considered previously is Amul Thapar. He was a district court judge in Kentucky - the first federal judge of South Asian descent - before Trump appointed him to the Cincinnat-based 6th Circuit in 2017.

    His father, Raj Thapar, told the Louisville Courier-Journal in 2016 that his son is so conservative that he "nearly wouldn't speak to me after I voted for Barack Obama." There has never been a Supreme Court justice of Asian descent.

    Conservative activists for years have sought to get enough votes on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to appoint justices who would overturn that decision. But the court in July, even with its conservative majority, struck down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law on a 5-4 vote.

    The two justices already appointed by Trump were Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Kavanaugh's confirmation process was particularly heated, as he faced accusations by a California university professor, Christine Blasey Ford, that he had sexually assaulted her in 1982 when the two were high school students in Maryland. Kavanaugh angrily denied those accusations and was narrowly confirmed.

    SENATE CHALLENGE

    Republicans risk the possibility of liberals embracing more radical proposals should Trump replace Ginsburg but Democrats win November's election, with some activists on the left suggesting even before Ginsburg's death that the number of justices on the court should be expanded to counter Trump's appointees.

    "Let me be clear: if Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans move forward with this, then nothing is off the table for next year," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told fellow Democrats on a Saturday conference call, according to a source who listened to the call.

    House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler on Saturday said that rushing a court pick through the Senate if Democrats win in November would be "undemocratic."

    He said in a Twitter post that doing so would mean "Congress would have to act and expanding the court would be the right place to start."

    Confirmation votes could also put more pressure on incumbent Republican senators in competitive election races, including Maine's Susan Collins and Arizona's Martha McSally, at a time when Democrats are eying a chance to win control of that chamber. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who is not up for re-election this cycle, also could play a pivotal role.

    (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Steve Holland in Washington; Additional reporting by Rick Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)

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