Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, Remarks at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute Event: The U.S. Senate’s Role in Confirming Supreme Court Justices

Good morning.  I thank the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for inviting me, and to Vicki for being with us today.  The Kennedy name is synonymous with public service.  Ted Kennedy dedicated his life to serving the people of Massachusetts and the people of America – especially the disempowered and disadvantaged.  He was an inspiration to us all.     

These days, we certainly could use some more of Senator Kennedy’s commitment to the Constitution.  I hope this event will remind us what it means to be a true public servant in the Kennedy mold.  It means making the government work for the people, and understanding how our work impacts the lives of those we serve.  It means appreciating the awesome responsibilities that come with being a United States Senator.  It means rolling up our sleeves, setting aside partisan bickering, and finding ways to get the job done.

For many years, I served with Senator Kennedy on the Judiciary Committee, which considers some of the most pressing issues facing the American people – including immigration and civil rights, two issues dear to Senator Kennedy.  Our Committee has also played a singularly important role in considering nominees to serve in our Federal judiciary. 

As Senator Kennedy once said, “Few responsibilities we have as Senators are more important than our responsibility to advise and consent to the nominations by the President to the Supreme Court.”  Ted understood the momentous nature of Supreme Court nominations, as well as the historic and constitutionally-mandated role of the Senate.  So it is important that today’s event focuses on the Senate’s undeniable and irreplaceable role in providing advice and consent on the President’s nominees. 

Because that is exactly what the Judiciary Committee should be doing this very week.  In the normal course, once the President makes a nomination, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee review the nominee’s record and hold public hearings so that the American people can hear from the nominee.  The members of the Judiciary Committee then vote on that nominee after careful deliberation, and then the full Senate does the same.      

This is how it has been for the last 100 years.  When I became Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 2001 during the Bush administration, I and Senator Hatch – who was then the Ranking Member – memorialized how the Committee would continue in this tradition to consider President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees.  In a letter to all Senators, Senator Hatch and I wrote, “The Judiciary Committee’s traditional practice has been to report Supreme Court nominees to the Senate once the Committee has completed its considerations.  This has been true even in cases where Supreme Court nominees were opposed by a majority of the Judiciary Committee.”  Senator Hatch and I agreed to that.  And then-Minority Leader Trent Lott agreed too, saying this back in 2001:  “the Senate has a long record allowing the Supreme Court nominees of the President to be given a vote on the floor of the Senate.”  We all agreed to this because that’s what we in the Senate have done for a century.  In an open and transparent manner.  And to let the American people see us doing our work.

Last month, the Kennedy Institute released a national poll that showed just 36 percent of Americans know that the Senate confirms Supreme Court nominees.  Our response as Senators to this unfortunate fact should not be to deny Chief Judge Merrick Garland a public hearing and a vote, breaking 100 years of Senate tradition and failing to do our jobs as Senators.  Instead, our response should be to engage with the American people and to show them through our actions that the Senate can hold up its part of the constitutional framework.  

And although many Americans may not be able to tell you that the Senate confirms Supreme Court nominees, a solid majority of the American public does know – by a 2-to-1 margin – that Chief Judge Garland deserves to have a hearing, and that the Senate should do its constitutional duty.    

Some Republican Senators have claimed that their unprecedented obstruction against Chief Judge Garland is based on “principle, not the person.”  This is simply not true.  Some dared President Obama to nominate Judge Garland, praising his bipartisan support and consensus-building style, but now refuse to allow the nominee to move forward.  Others have attacked Judge Garland’s record while at the same time denying him the chance to respond at a public hearing.  Neither of these positions is principled.

Today you will hear about some of the Senate’s most memorable confirmation debates – and you will see that the Senate has considered controversial nominees and situations before.  But in every one of those instances, the nominee received a public hearing and a vote.  To deny Chief Judge Garland a public hearing and a vote would be truly historic – but that is not the kind of history the Senate should be proud of.  As Americans engaged in our democratic process, you should demand that the Senate be fair.  You should demand that your Senators do their jobs by providing this nominee a public hearing so he can respond to the attacks on his record.

I believe that is what Ted Kennedy would be doing.  It is easy in politics to appeal to self-interest– but Senator Kennedy appealed to the best in us.  He appealed to our sense of justice, to our sense of responsibility to each other, and to our uniquely American belief in hope and possibility. 

Ted appreciated the role of the Senate.  He knew that sometimes you had to be an instigator, sometimes a defender, sometimes a compromiser.  But no matter what, as Senators we are called to fulfill our constitutional duties.  We are called to lead.  We need to do our job.  It is my sincere hope that in the coming weeks, all of us in the Senate will follow Ted’s example and uphold the finest traditions of the Senate by providing public hearings and a vote for Chief Judge Merrick Garland. 

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