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Newsletter: Six weeks to go, anyone’s guess what happens next

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
(Associated Press)

Six months in America have looked like this: a widespread and deadly pandemic; a collapsed economy; a national reckoning over racism and systemic inequality; devastating wildfires and the evidence they offer of accelerating climate change.

And now, the death of perhaps the most iconic Supreme Court justice in modern history.

It’s near impossible to process the events at the speed with which they seem to shape and then quickly reshape the political landscape of 2020.

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Look no further than this moment, the beginning of a week where the nation’s political conversation was poised to center around the grim news of 200,000 deaths from COVID-19 and is now focused on the death of one person of profound impact, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

What Ginsburg wanted, Trump won’t do

It’s hard to imagine any of the nation’s nine Supreme Court justices who would be recognized by more Americans than Ginsburg. Her death on Friday prompted an outpouring of tributes, many of which pointed out the numerous battles for women’s rights fought — and won — by the diminutive but larger-than-life Brooklyn-born jurist who embraced her pop culture status as “Notorious RBG.”

Ginsburg’s final wish, revealed immediately after her death, was that her seat on the high court be filled after the inauguration of a president in January and not by President Trump in the final months of his current term in office.

Trump made it clear on Saturday he has no intention of doing that. Instead, he promised action within a matter of days and hinted that he would probably nominate a woman.

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The list: who’s on deck?

Few topics have more consistently animated the president than the ability to leave his mark on the Supreme Court. In the spring of 2016, Trump became the first presidential candidate to release a list of prospective nominees, none of which he has selected in filling two vacancies — instead, choosing Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. A second list appeared before the 2016 election. An updated list was released in November 2017 and the president rolled out yet another list only nine days before Ginsburg’s death.

Three women are likely top contenders, writes Del Quentin Wilber: Amy Coney Barrett, a 48-year-old former professor at Notre Dame Law School who now serves on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals; Barbara Lagoa, 52, a former federal prosecutor who was the first Cuban American to serve on the Florida Supreme Court and now sits on the 11th Circuit; and Joan Larsen, a 51-year-old former Michigan state judge who now serves on the 6th Circuit.

The vote: would four Republicans demand to wait?

Less than 90 minutes after Ginsburg’s death was announced, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lit the fuse on the real political powder keg, making it clear that Trump’s nominee will be voted on by the Senate.

Fierce social media debate ensued, with critics wondering how McConnell and his fellow Republican senators can explain their embrace of a pre-election vote on Trump’s nominee after spending months running out the clock on Judge Merrick Garland, the 2016 choice of former President Barack Obama to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

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But careful Capitol Hill watchers noted that McConnell didn’t say when the vote would happen — before election day or after? And while a handful of Supreme Court nominees have quickly been ushered through the process, most confirmation processes have taken at least a couple of months.

Two GOP lawmakers made it clear they are opposed to any swift action: Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. In theory, though, four of the Senate’s 53 Republicans would have to break ranks to slow or stop the effort — as a 50-50 tie on the issue would be broken by Vice President Mike Pence.

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Supremely high stakes in what’s next

If there’s been one common reaction to the process for replacing Ginsburg, it’s that the political and policy stakes are sky-high.

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Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden sought to portray the possibility of a supermajority of conservatives on the Supreme Court as a threat not only to Americans’ healthcare but also to the nation’s democratic traditions.

“Cool the flames that have been engulfing our country,” Biden pleaded to Republican senators.

As for the issues facing the high court and the impact of a new justice, here’s the key passage in a weekend news analysis from The Times’ veteran Supreme Court writer, David G. Savage:

A conservative court could use its majority to overturn Roe vs. Wade, which guarantees a woman’s right to abortion, and strike down Obamacare and its promise of health insurance for millions, including those with preexisting conditions.

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Finally, it’s worth noting just how important voters supporting both major parties have seen the Supreme Court, even long before the passing of Ginsburg. But with the election so close — both in time and in national and state battleground polls — things are poised to get even more heated, a hard thing to imagine given all we’ve been through in 2020.

“The polarization in this election was already a 12 on a 1-to-10 scale,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. “This pushes it to about 15.”

National lightning round

— A woman suspected of sending an envelope containing the poison ricin, which was addressed to White House, has been arrested at the New York-Canada border.

— A judge has cleared the way for more absentee ballots to be counted in Michigan, a battleground state that Trump won by only 10,000 votes in 2016.

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— The Census Bureau is contending with wildfires and hurricanes disrupting the final weeks of the nation’s once-a-decade headcount.

Quiet unveiling of big California unemployment agency problems

Surely there’s no good time to put out bad news, but advisors to Gov. Gavin Newsom gave it their best shot on Saturday night, quietly releasing the long-expected report on problems plaguing the California Employment Development Department. The email landed in the inbox of reporters just before 9 p.m., offering up a link to a 109-page investigation by Newsom’s “strike team” and a separate nine-page list of recommendations.

The findings confirmed much of what millions of Californians, frustrated by the slow pace of processing jobless claims, feared. Perhaps most notable, as reported by The Times’ Patrick McGreevy: The agency’s backlog is growing larger by some 10,000 applications every day. And current estimates are that it will take as long as January to resolve that problem, not the fix by the end of September that Newsom had demanded.

And more bad news for California’s unemployment agency: On Wednesday, the Beverly Hills Police Department said that it had arrested 44 people and confiscated 129 fraudulently obtained jobless benefit debit cards potentially worth more than $2.5 million issued by the state in recent weeks.

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Today’s essential California politics

— Newsom signed into law a bill requiring California employers with five or more workers to offer 12 weeks of unpaid time off for family leave beginning Jan. 1. Currently, only companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide 12 weeks of leave to care for a new child or a family member.

— Newsom also signed a pair of laws boosting COVID-19 protections for workers. One will make it easier for police, firefighters and other essential employees who contract the virus while working to be covered under the state’s workers’ compensation program. The other will require employers to provide written notice to workers who may have been exposed to the virus.

Coming Wednesday: A new edition of this newsletter

Starting on Wednesday, we’ll add a midweek edition to the Essential Politics newsletter in an effort to help you keep up with all that’s going on in the campaign and the broader worlds of state and national politics. Look for it in your inbox. And as you may have noticed, we’ve revamped the design of the newsletter as well. We hope you’ll like it. Drop us a line to tell us what you think.

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