Obama says Senate inaction on Supreme Court pick will erode public faith in courts

President Barack Obama takes part in a discussion on the Supreme Court and the country's judicial system at the University of Chicago Law School on Thursday.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama warned Thursday that the Senate’s refusal to begin the confirmation process for his Supreme Court nominee is more than a run-of-the-mill fight with lawmakers: it’s a political event that threatens the American judiciary.

In a meeting with University of Chicago law students, Obama argued that Republicans’ refusal hold hearings for Judge Merrick Garland could erode the independence of the courts and public faith in their decisions.

If politics so deeply infuse the process that an “indisputably qualified” jurist can’t even get a hearing, Obama said, then “the courts will be just an extension of our legislatures.”


“That,” he said, “erodes the institutional integrity of the judicial branch” and could well lead to a loss of public faith in the courts’ rulings.

Led by constitutional law professor David Strauss, the town hall was part of Obama’s campaign to confirm Garland.

By taking the argument to the prestigious law school where he once taught constitutional law, Obama made a doctrinal argument while also touting his personal credentials to do so.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged the politics at play on Thursday. He predicted that Obama would “gloss over the fact” that the new Supreme Court justice would have a dramatic effect on “cherished constitutional rights like those contained in the 1st and 2nd Amendments.”

But at the same time there were signs that Obama’s effort is having an effect on some Senate Republicans. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), fighting for reelection this year, reminded Illinois voters that he met with Garland by tweeting a photo of the handwritten note of thanks he got from Obama.

“Thanks, @POTUS,” the tweet read. “I met with Judge Garland because my responsibility to (the) people of Illinois is more important than partisanship.”


To get Garland before a Senate hearing, though, Obama has to persuade more than a few senators at risk of losing their seats this year.

On Thursday, Obama kicked the argument up a notch. The debate is not about the direction of the court, but about separation of powers.

Garland is “indisputably qualified,” he said, “and nobody really argues otherwise.”

The American legal system has fought over the balance between liberty and security before, he said, and over the rights of minority groups versus the majority. This is different, he argued.

“Those are all issues where passions are real and people have opinions, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But I think what changed was when the Congress itself and the Senate in particular began to change . . . In some ways the judicial process is a casualty of some broader trends in our democracy.”


Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland has a record of restraint, not activism


White House says it’s chipping away at GOP resistance to considering Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland

How long until Merrick Garland is justice? It took Clarence Thomas 99 days and John Roberts just 23