Nearly 300 days ago, on a sunny March morning, President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. That nomination officially expired today at noon, when the 114th Congress came to a close.
Obama could have nominated Garland again as a matter of principle, or he conceivably could have attempted to install him without the Senate’s consent during the recent congressional recess. Instead, the president took the less controversial path of letting the nomination expire. Garland now resumes his duties on the court of appeals.
Shortly after Scalia’s death, Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced that any new nomination to the Supreme Court should be made by the next president, rather than Obama. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed that sentiment, issuing a statement in which he indicated that “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
The Republicans’ strategy was controversial but ultimately successful. Although Obama might have hoped that Garland’s sterling qualifications and his reputation as an ideological moderate would leave Senate Republicans with no choice but to confirm him, Republicans held their ground, refusing even to hold hearings on the Garland nomination. And the strategy paid off: Now President-elect Donald Trump will nominate a replacement for Scalia instead. During the campaign, Trump released two lists of potential nominees to the Supreme Court, and he has promised to choose a nominee from those lists to succeed Scalia.
The potential nominees on Trump’s lists are all solidly conservative, significantly more so than Garland. The consequences of the resulting ideological shift on the Supreme Court are likely to be felt in U.S. law for decades.