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Supreme Court vacancy sparks political battle just weeks before election

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death has created an opening on the U.S. Supreme Court -- mere weeks before a presidential election. Now a major political battle is brewing over whether that spot should be filled by President Trump now or by the candidate who is elected in November and inaugurated in January. The result could determine the Court’s trajectory for decades to come. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The stakes don't come any higher.

    The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has created an opening on the U.S. Supreme Court just before a presidential election. Now a battle royal begins, and the outcome could decisively shift the high court to the right.

    John Yang begins our coverage.

  • John Yang:

    Flags flew at half-staff over the White House today to honor the late justice who died Friday of metastatic pancreatic cancer. Inside, behind closed doors, talks intensified, as President Trump prepares to nominate a successor.

    The president said he's narrowed his list of candidates to five, all of them women.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I would say, on Friday or Saturday, I'll be announcing the pick. It's five women are being looked at and vetted very carefully.

    We will pick somebody that is outstanding, very qualified. They're all qualified, but somebody that is outstanding. And I would rather see it all take place before the election.

  • John Yang:

    The president's proposed timing would leave less than 40 days for confirmation hearings and a vote before Election Day.

    No Supreme Court justice has been confirmed that quickly since 1981, when Sandra Day O'Connor was unanimously approved to be the first female justice a little more than a month after President Reagan nominated her.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has insisted Mr. Trump's nominee will get a vote on the Senate floor.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    The Senate has more than sufficient time to process the nomination. History and precedent make that perfectly clear. If our Democratic colleagues want to claim they are outraged, they can only be outraged at the plain facts of American history. This Senate will vote on this nomination this year.

  • John Yang:

    But it's still unclear if there are enough Senate Republican votes to push a nomination through. The party controls the chamber 53-47. Just four Republicans breaking ranks would block the president's nominee.

    Already, two of them, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have said they do not support a vote before Election Day.

    Democrats slam the scramble to quickly confirm a replacement as hypocritical. In 2016, McConnell refused to consider former President Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died nine months before the election.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    Mitch McConnell believes that this fight is over. What Mitch McConnell does not understand is, this fight has just begun.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • John Yang:

    Yesterday, in Philadelphia, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said jamming a nomination through the Senate would be an abuse of power, and he made a direct appeal to Senate Republicans.

  • Former Vice President Joseph Biden:

    Please, follow your conscience. Don't vote to confirm anyone nominated under the circumstances President Trump and Senator McConnell have created.

    Don't go there. Uphold your constitutional duty. The last thing we need is to add a constitutional crisis that plunges us deeper into the abyss, deeper into the darkness.

  • John Yang:

    Biden said that, if he wins in November, President Trump's nominee should be withdrawn and replaced with his own.

    Outside the Supreme Court building, a steady stream of mourners paid their respects at a makeshift memorial.

  • Leah Krynicky:

    It was because of the work that she's done that I was able to have a good job that allowed me, as a single woman, to support myself and to choose to have a family, to have reproductive choices that allowed me to delay pregnancy until I was ready for it, and then to choose to do it on my own, to have the confidence that my job would be OK.

  • Daniel Hickey:

    The fact that we had a Supreme Court persona who was dedicated to reason and justice and, I think, balance is something that is imperative in our judicial system, particularly at the top.

  • John Yang:

    Inside, black crepe drapes the entrances to the high court's chambers, Justice Ginsburg's seat and the bench in front of it.

    Ginsburg will lie in repose at the Supreme Court Wednesday and Thursday, placed under the Portico at the top of the court's front steps to allow the public for outdoor public viewing amid the pandemic. On Friday, she will lie in state in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, before a private burial next week at Arlington National Cemetery.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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