The Need for an Established Senate Rule on Election-Year and Lame Duck Session Supreme Court Nominations

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54 U. Mich. J. L. Reform Caveat

Jacob R. Weaver*

Introduction

In 2016, the Republican-held Senate refused to hold a hearing on President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, sparking outrage among the Democratic Party.1 Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell justified his party’s actions based on what became known as the “McConnell Rule.” This controversial rule holds that during years of presidential elections, when the president and the Senate majority are of different parties, the Senate is not expected to confirm the president’s Supreme Court nominees; but, when the president and Senate majority are of the same party, vacancies may be filled.2

When the Senate applied this rule in 2020, the stakes were even higher. Revered liberal stalwart Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away only 46 days before the 2020 presidential election.3 Invoking the McConnell Rule,4 the Republican-held Senate moved forward with the confirmation of President Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett.5 This contentious move again infuriated Democrats, and the topic of court-packing soon became a central issue for the presidential campaign.6

Now that Justice Barrett has been appointed and the presidential election has passed, it is useful to look back on the history of Supreme Court nominations during presidential election years. Such a review suggests that the so-called McConnell Rule is rooted in valid historical precedent. In fact, viewed in light of American history, even a Trump lame duck nomination and confirmation would have been valid.

This blog post argues that the Senate should distill this historical precedent into an explicit Rule of the Senate that will govern the chamber going forward. The rule should obligate the Senate to either (1) hold a vote to confirm the election-year or lame duck nominee, or (2) hold a vote to postpone action on the nomination. If a vote to postpone action on the nomination fails, the rule should then compel the Senate to hold a vote to confirm the nominee. Such a rule removes all doubt about the Senate’s authority to act or refuse to act on election-year and lame duck nominees, exposes unfounded threats of retaliation by minority parties, and best conforms to the Constitution.

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