Right, left to clash over High Court
A vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, like everything else involving government today, is a bitterly divisive venue for another political battle. The resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy, to take place at the end of July, galvanizes conservatives and liberals in equal measure.
The fight will be polarization on steroids.
Justice Kennedy leans conservative in most cases, but on a few others, particularly those involving social issues, he has been the swing vote that causes liberals to exhale, “Whew, that was close!”
President Trump has pledged, on the record, to appoint a conservative to replace Kennedy.
His aim, if he is to be believed, is to shift the court from what is essentially a 4 2/3 to 4 1/3 conservative majority to a pretty solid 5-4 one.
In another example of his disdain for tradition, Trump promised publicly during his campaign to fill a Supreme Court vacancy with someone who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that declared, by a 7-2 vote, that women have a constitutional right to choose abortion. Presidents, like judicial nominees, have long refrained from stating a position on particular cases.
Reversing Roe v. Wade, since 1973, has been the pole star for the conservative movement in the United States.
Millions of right-leaning Christians have made the decision to forgive Trump, or at least look the other way, when his conduct is decidedly un-Christian because they think he and they are on the same page regarding abortion. For them it’s his political “get out of jail free” card.
And Tea Party conservatives have eagerly supported challengers to incumbent moderate Republican lawmakers and officeholders who have not adequately evinced clear and total opposition to abortion. As a result, moderate Republicans are a vanishing breed. Rhinos and “Rinos” (Republicans In Name Only) have that in common.
But pockets of moderation still remain in some corners of the nation. One of those is the state of Maine.
And that brings us to Sen. Susan Collins.
I’ll preface my discussion of Collins by noting that Maine is not 100 percent moderate. Republican Paul LePage, governor of the state since 2011, appears cut from the same radically conservative cloth as former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
I don’t know much about Maine’s two U.S. representatives. OK, I don’t know anything about them. One is a Republican and the other a Democrat.
But Maine’s two U.S. senators represent the state’s political leanings well. Maybe “leanings” is a misnomer. One, Angus King, is an Independent. The other, Collins, is rated by all political rating systems as the most moderate Republican in the Senate. She gets ratings from 40 percent to 60 percent on all the reputable charts that analyze the political spectrum of members of Congress.
Sen. Collins has represented Maine in the U.S. Senate for more than 30 years. She has one of the highest approval ratings from her constituents of all the U.S. senators. Collins is the latest in a long line of moderate Republican senators from Maine in recent decades: Margaret Chase Smith, William Cohen and Olympia Snowe, to name a few.
Another of Collins’ Republican antecedents from Maine is Sen. William Fessenden, who in 1867 was the first Republican to vote “not guilty” on the Senate floor in the congressional Republican attempt to convict President Andrew Johnson, whom the House had impeached. Six other Republican senators followed suit with Fessenden, and Johnson was acquitted by a single vote.
Sen. Collins’ moderation ratings come because she is neither a knee-jerk conservative nor a knee-jerk liberal. She takes thoughtful positions on various issues on the political spectrum, depending on the issue.
Her positions are well reasoned, and once she makes her mind up, she adheres devotedly to where her intellect and her loyalty to American values and the Constitution lead her.
One of Collins’ strongest and most consistent positions has been protecting a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion. She’s been open about her pro-choice position for decades, and her constituents have consistently supported her. She’s apparently in the “Maineline” with her voters.
Now, with Trump about to name his choice for Justice Kennedy’s replacement on the Supreme Court, she will be faced with potentially the most important decision of her political career.
Trump knows well what Collins’ position is on abortion. He has already met with her about the upcoming nomination. The pressure on her, from her party’s president, her Senate Republican leadership and colleagues, pro-life groups from across the nation, and her conservative constituents in Maine, is already intense, and will only grow.
Collins’ vote may well be the deciding one.
The Senate is divided 51 to 49 in Republicans’ favor, with two Independent senators joining the 47 Democrats in most cases. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain is battling brain cancer back home, and has not taken part in a Senate vote for many weeks.
That makes the working division in the Senate 50 to 49.
If the Democrats hold together in opposition to Trump’s nominee, it will take only one Republican “no” vote to disapprove the nomination.
This past weekend, Collins showed the strength of her political chops. She refused to say she would oppose a nominee on the “litmus test” of Roe v. Wade.
Instead, she took her stand on stronger, and more universally accepted, grounds: the legal concept of stare decisis.
Stare decisis is the Latin term for “to stand by things decided.” In other words, it’s the doctrine of precedent.
Collins’ position on abortion is that Roe v. Wade — having stood the test of time for 45 years in the face of many attempts to overturn it — is settled law in the United States.
Her stance avoids the us vs. them political argument on abortion and takes the higher ground of established precedent.
She is sure to ask Trump’s nominee, when she has her inevitable conversation with him or her, what the nominee’s opinion of stare decisis is.
It appears that she will need to be convinced of the nominee’s devotion to that principle to win her support, and it remains to be seen what this test will do for her legacy and place among the long line of independent Mainers.