Senate owes Garland a hearing

This Month, President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court, fulfilling his constitutional duty to nominate someone for the vacancy created by the unexpected passing of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Judge Garland is a well-respected jurist with impeccable qualifications and unrivaled federal judicial experience. In 1997, he received strong bipartisan support in his confirmation to the D.C. Circuit, where he has served as chief judge for over three years. His legacy as an attorney includes overseeing some of the most difficult and significant anti-terrorism cases in our nation’s history, including the Oklahoma City bombing.

In an unprecedented display of obstruction, Senate Republicans are doubling down on their pledge to deny the president’s nominee a fair hearing and an up-or-down vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and many others won’t even meet with him.

So is there something unusual about a Supreme Court vacancy during the last year of a president’s term? Is there a rule against considering a nominee during a presidential election year? The answer is no.

On more than a dozen occasions, the Senate has confirmed a Supreme Court justice in a president’s final year in office, including confirmation of Justice Anthony Kennedy under a Democratic majority during President Ronald Reagan’s last year.

Many Virginians have asked me why the Senate would choose to go against such clear historical precedent, and why members would choose to shirk such a basic part of our job descriptions.

Sadly, many share my fear that this is more about the identity of this particular president than his nominee. We saw a similar break with well-established precedent earlier this year when, for the first time since the Budget Act of 1974 was passed, budget committees in the House and Senate refused to hold hearings on the president’s annual budget.

Never before has a sitting president been denied his constitutional right to nominate someone for a Supreme Court vacancy. Never before have members of the Senate advocated leaving the Supreme Court with only eight justices for nearly a year so that, in the words of Senate Republicans, “the American people can decide.”

The fact is that the American people did decide. They re-elected President Obama to a second term in 2012, thereby giving him the constitutional responsibility to nominate justices to the Supreme Court from his first day in office to his last.

And if Senate Republicans believe that the president should no longer be permitted to do his job in his final year, what about the many Senators up for reelection in November? Should they just stop working now, until the American people decide whether they should still be in office after November?

At a time when the American people are rightly frustrated with Congress for not getting enough done, the idea of Senators refusing to take votes during an election year is shameful. And so is the suggestion that the president’s superbly qualified Supreme Court nominee should be denied a hearing.

If senators oppose Garland’s nomination, they should be willing to vote no and explain why. And as the majority, they have the votes to defeat the nominee if they choose. But by refusing to vote, they seek to avoid accountability, violating their oath of office and constitutional job description.

As elected leaders, we must show respect for our institutions of government. If we don’t, how can we expect any citizen to do so?

A refusal to even entertain Obama’s nominee disrespects the presidency, the Supreme Court and — most of all — Congress. I urge my colleagues to pull back from this unprecedented evasion of duty and give Garland a full hearing and the floor vote the Constitution commands.