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GOP Would Be Irresponsible Not To Consider Supreme Court Nominee, Leahy Says


There are signs of a possible thaw in the partisan showdown over choosing the next Supreme Court justice.


Republican leaders have loudly opposed President Obama naming any replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia. They argue the next president should decide.

MONTAGNE: And as Republicans threatened to block his nominee, President Obama shot back, saying that the Constitution requires that he name one. Now the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, is suggesting his committee might go ahead and consider an Obama nominee.

CHUCK GRASSLEY: I would wait until the nominee is made before I would make any decisions. In other words, take it a step at a time.

MONTAGNE: Next to Grassley, the Republican chair, Senator Patrick Leahy, is the most powerful Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. We reached him at his home in Vermont. Welcome to the program.

PATRICK LEAHY: Thank you. It's good to be on it.

MONTAGNE: Now to begin, would you do some math for us? If the president is blocked from naming a High Court justice based on the argument that's being made by the Republicans that this is an election year, how does that add up? When would Americans be getting a full court?

LEAHY: Oh, it would be a year and a half to two years before they would. It would be totally irresponsible and totally unprecedented to not allow a hearing and a vote on a nominee.

MONTAGNE: Could a candidate be vetted by the Judiciary Committee before a hearing is set by, say, spring? I mean, early enough to really make this a going concern?

LEAHY: Normally it takes about two months for a Supreme Court nomination. We can do that easily. We've got several months of recesses scheduled by the Republican leadership. And so a couple of those recesses may get it done easily. We actually could do that before the conventions.

MONTAGNE: The president has said a little about what he's looking for in a nominee - mostly generalizations. As the ranking Democrat on the Committee, what kind of candidate would you like and expect to see?

LEAHY: That's a good question. What I try to do - and I've recommended a number of judges over the years to various presidents, both Republicans and Democrats. And what I've said is I want a judge that if you come before that judge - and I did cases in a lot of courts - can you look at that judge and say, it's not going to make any difference whether I'm plaintiff or defendant, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat, I'm going to get a fair hearing. If you can look at a judge and say that and they've got all the other legal qualifications, that makes a good judge. And that's what I would recommend. We have a number of people that have been confirmed unanimously in courts of appeals because both Republicans and Democrats thought they were very well-qualified. You want to be very careful who you nominate. You want a good person. They're going to serve there well after the Senate who votes on them will be gone. But in a nation as large as ours, you're going to be able to find that one person easily.

MONTAGNE: Is there a something different about a Supreme Court justice than the other judges that you're speaking about? Because there seems to have been a lot of talk about how there's special responsibility to balance the court - to somehow replace Justice Scalia with something not necessarily similar but not to do the opposite. Does any of that make sense to you?

LEAHY: I think it would be hard to find a clone of Antonin Scalia, if that's the question. I think what we should do is just try to get the best person possible.

MONTAGNE: Is an argument to be made that it might be worth it for the Democrats to in fact wait if this is blocked because then if the Democrats win the White House, there would be more flexibility in the candidate that might be chosen?

LEAHY: I think the precedent would be terrible. What we'd be saying is we're going back to the way the country was in the Civil War. No matter who gets elected, it would be 15, 16 months before the vacancy would be filled. The dozen times where we've had this situation, we've always gone forward and filled the seat. Every time since the Civil War. And nobody wants to use the Civil War as a precedent.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much talking with us.

LEAHY: Good talking with you. Take care.

MONTAGNE: Speaking to us from his home in Vermont, Senator Patrick Leahy, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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