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Intense political fight brews over SCOTUS nomination as midterms loom

U.S. Supreme Court nominations grew more politically controversial in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush appointed former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who was thought to be conservative but often sided with the court’s liberal justices. Now, Trump’s appointee may be a key voting issue for midterm elections. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield joins Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Tomorrow night, in a prime time address, President Trump is scheduled to reveal his candidate for the Supreme Court. It's a choice that is widely expected to move the court significantly to the right. It's also a decision that will mark the start of an intense political fight that could help decide which party prevails in the November midterms. But as Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield notes, the Supreme Court as a political battlefield is relatively new. He joins me now from Santa Barbara. Jeff, in recent history we think of the court nominations as political battles but you're looking at the longer arc of this.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Yet it seems almost impossible to contemplate. But, from 1994 to 1968 only one Supreme Court nominee was rejected. They were relatively noncontroversial. And even when controversy did begin to erupt, they weren't partisan battles. Richard Nixon lost two of his nominees and in those fights 17 Democrats voted for Richard Nixon's nominees, 13 Republicans voted against them. And the real surprise to a lot of people that the most contentious battle over nominations in memory was Clarence Thomas in 1991. He's on the court because 11 Democrats voted for his confirmation.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So what changed?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    In a word, polarization. You don't have any liberal Republicans in the Senate, you don't have any conservative Democrats. We are in the D becomes almost all encompassing in terms of how you're going to vote and what the base wants to consider. And that's why, for instance, in most recent nominations, for instance, no Republican voted against Neil Gorsuch, I think only four Democrats voted for him. Elena Kagan, Obama's last nominee, only one Democrat voted against her — and fewer than half a dozen Republicans voted for her. It's all become partisan now in a way it never was before.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Was their nomination in particular?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Yeah. I think, history is going to look back and say that the nomination of David Souter in 1990 by the first President Bush was the tipping point. For decades Republican presidents nominated justices who turned out to be very liberal. Earl Warren, William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens. But when Souter, who was called a home run for conservatives by Bush's chief of staff, went liberal. That was kind of it. The conservative base said, that's it. They had a rallying cry, "no more Souters from here on"… They demanded that any Republican president nominate a justice who'd been vetted by reliably conservative outfits like The Heritage Foundation. And that's been the case, I think, and will be the case certainly with this president.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So let's talk a little bit about the political implications of whoever gets nominated now.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Well, right now there are five Democratic senators up for re-election. They come from states that Trump won by landslide majorities. The president's been campaigning in those states specifically to put pressure on those Democrats to either vote for his nominee or suffer at the polls. And what's interesting is that because the Supreme Court was so much bigger an issue for conservatives who felt betrayed by their presidents than liberals who are perfectly content to see Republicans nominate moderates and liberals, among voters who picked the court as their key voting issue in this last presidential election, they broke heavily for Trump. In fact, you could argue that's why Trump is in the White House. And one of the things we're going to see is that, the prospect of a very conservative Supreme Court. We're going to find out whether that's going to make Democrats make the Supreme Court as big a voting issue as it has been for Republicans. So there's an enormous amount at stake whoever the president decides to nominate tomorrow.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Jeff Greenfield joining us from California, thanks so much.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Thank you.

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