WASHINGTON – The sudden death of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will complicate this already messy US political environment. It is no mystery that the US Supreme Court (nine members who serve for life) is often divided on key issues along political lines. Until now, the conservatives prevailed; but usually by a thin 5 to 4 margin.
The death of a conservative Justice
Antonin Scalia was a leading member of the conservative group. Now that he is dead, left leaning President Obama has the opportunity to nominate a replacement and send his nomination to the Senate for confirmation, as the US Constitution mandates.
In this unfortunate political climate, it is most likely that Obama will select a jurist with left wing political leanings. If his nominee is confirmed, in the last year of his presidency Obama will have accomplished a shift in the orientation of the US Supreme Court that may last way beyond his presidency. But this is most likely a dream.
Clash with the Senate
Indeed, the problem for Obama is that the Senate is controlled by the Republicans. They will never confirm a left wing jurist. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already stated that the new Supreme Court Justice should be appointed by the next President who will be in office 11 months from now. With this de facto obstruction, there will be no new Justice confirmed before the next presidential elections, therefore there will be an eight members, incomplete Court for almost a year.
Anyway, we shall see how this goes. Can Obama send a reasonably moderate jurist to the Senate? A compromise candidate, someone that the Republicans can live with and will therefore confirm? Possible, but very unlikely.
What happened to form?
That said, beyond the obvious political angle, let me spend a few words focusing on formalities. Scalia’s death came suddenly and unexpectedly. He was in Texas with friends, on a hunting trip. He went to bed, and apparently never woke up.
President Obama was away from Washington, in California for a short vacation, playing golf. As form and protocol would recommend, President Obama made an official TV announcement about Scalia’s death.
The announcement was sober and respectful. Obama pointed out Scalia’s remarkable influence on modern jurisprudence and the very important role that he played in the US Supreme Court. He offered his condolences to the family, and to the Court.
So, the President did the right thing. Except that he made his televised speech wearing a jacket and an open shirt; but no tie, “casual Fridays style”.
Of course, I am well aware that these days formalities are not in fashion any more, in America –and elsewhere, for that matter. People, including high ranking professionals, go to work dressed pretty much as they please. “Coat and tie” is not just not mandatory, it may even look funny and out of place in certain work environments. (Think Silicon Valley, for example).
But this should have been different. Here is the President of the United States announcing to the Nation the death of one of nine Supreme Court Justices. This is about the highest court in the land, the ultimate guarantor of our constitutional integrity, and therefore a solemn moment. This announcement does require form. And our President could not even put on a tie for the occasion?
If he did it on purpose, then this is his way to show disrespect for a deceased conservative Justice whom he disagreed with on most issues. If he did it without thinking, then he is totally clueless. In that moment President Obama was speaking to America about a loss that affects the US Supreme Court, a key pillar of our Republic. While his words were appropriate, his attire was not.
What I find extraordinary is that there is probably no one on his staff who could have made the suggestion. “Mr. President we strongly advise you to put on a tie for this TV announcement about Justice Scalia’s death. The occasion requires formal attire”.
If someone said this, they were not listened to. But I suspect that no one did. And this is bad. This was certainly not a major public ceremony, with complex, ritualized steps.
It was however a solemn moment. But Obama trivialized it with his causal attire. Yes, a simple tie would have a made a huge difference. In this case, it would have been a sign of real respect; for Scalia, for the US Supreme Court, and for the Republic.