Conservative Dark Money Targets Senators in Supreme Court Fight

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland, pictured, arrives with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as he is introduced as Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court during an announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, March 16, 2016. 

After the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, many Republicans immediately took to social media, broadcast television, and cable, to announce that they would not hold confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill the vacant seat—long before they knew who that person would be. Last week, Obama announced that Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, as his choice. Republicans are maintaining their no-hearings stance with the support of political action committees and other conservative groups that are willing to spend money to keep the seat empty until after the country elects a new president.

The Washington Post recently reported that several conservative organizations were aggressively opposing the nomination of Garland. One Nation, a Washington, D.C.-based, right-leaning PAC spent $140,000 on an advertisement for broadcast and cable television in Iowa that features Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.

“If President Obama jams through an election year appointment, it could radically transform our country’s laws, including land rights, gun control, and religious freedom,” says a narrator over ominous music. “Washington liberals want to push Obama’s choice before the people speak. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley says Iowans should have their voice heard first.”  

At the end of the ad, Senator Grassley’s Des Moines office phone number appears on the screen and a voiceover tells Iowans to call the Senator and encourage him to keep fighting Garland’s nomination.

Joining One Nation in this conservative campaign is the Judicial Crisis Network, an organization that supports placing conservative judges on courts across the country. The right-wing group launched its “Let the People Decide” campaign in February. “We cannot allow President Obama turn the Supreme Court nomination process into another partisan game, where Obama’s goal is to dominate the court with extremist liberal ideologues,” the group said in a press release.

The Judicial Crisis Network is running television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire respectively urging voters to stand with Senator Grassley and Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire in refusing to hold hearings. In the New Hampshire ad, the narrator says, “President Obama wants to rush another liberal nominee. Kelly Ayotte disagrees. She believes the people of New Hampshire should have a voice in this nomination.”

The group is also airing ads targeting Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Michael Bennet of Colorado (who is up for re-election), and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who have expressed their support for holding hearings. To date, the Judicial Crisis Network has spent $4 million on its campaign to oppose Obama’s nominee.

But Grassley and other Republican senators could feel a backlash at the ballot box from the campaign to prevent a Garland confirmation hearing from going forward. Ignoring voters might give the Democrats several Senate seats this fall. A March Public Policy Polling survey of 574 registered voters in Iowa found that 56 percent of them wanted the Supreme Court vacancy to be filled this year. Strong majorities of voters surveyed in Arizona, Missouri, and North Carolina also want to see the seat occupied before the presidential election.

Even though the Republican establishment is scrambling to figure out a way to derail Donald Trump’s campaign before the Republican National Convention in July, Republicans would prefer that Trump pick the next nominee instead of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Trump would, at least, give the Republicans the opportunity to nominate an ultra-conservative judge to the high court.

Because conservatives do not want to see any more liberal justices on the court, they were quick to denounce certain candidates. But GOP senators found themselves in a bind once Obama announced his pick. Garland, a moderate jurist, received widespread, bipartisan support during his confirmation process for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1997, including from Utah’s Republican senator, Orrin Hatch.

No Supreme Court nominee has been this controversial since Robert Bork, President Ronald Reagan’s pick to replace a retiring Lewis Powell faced withering criticism from Democrats. The Democratic-led Senate roundly rejected Bork in 1987 after it came to light that he was on record opposing the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which prohibits racial discrimination at most businesses. He was also against extending equal protection under the 14th Amendment to women, another viewpoint that many liberals also found reprehensible.

Some conservatives have been comparing the liberal rejection of Bork to their refusal to let Merrick Garland have his day on the Hill, but the comparison falls apart pretty quickly, however, as the Democrats actually held hearings on Bork.

Amid the fray, liberal activists and politicians began using the #DoYourJob hashtag to urge Senator Grassley to hold the confirmation hearings. But Grassley, along with the conservative activists supporting the effort to ditch Garland, show no signs of capitulating. 

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