As Battle Looms, Civil Rights Leaders Back Obama in Appointing Scalia’s Successor

As flags fly at half-staff over the White House and U. S. Supreme Court building this week after the sudden death of U. S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the debate has already turned to who should replace the ultra-conservative justice and moreover, who should appoint his replacement.

While giving condolences to his family, President Barack Obama has quickly pointed to the U. S. Constitution, which, in Article II Section 2, gives the President the power to nominate Supreme Court justices with a Senate vote on that appointment.

“For almost 30 years, Justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia was a larger-than-life presence on the bench – a brilliant legal mind with an energetic style, incisive wit, and colorful opinions. He influenced a generation of judges, lawyers, and students, and profoundly shaped the legal landscape.  He will no doubt be remembered as one of the most consequential judges and thinkers to serve on the Supreme Court,” Obama said in an initial statement released Feb. 13, shortly after the announcement that Scalia had died in his sleep of a heart attack.

Giving honor to Scalia for his service, the President then announced, “I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time.  There will be plenty of time for me to do so, and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote.”

The President’s announcement of his intent to nominate was immediately met with scorn from Republican leaders who contend that he should hold off and allow the winner of the presidential election to make the appointment, a suggestion that has been answered with strong calls from Democrats and civil rights leaders for Obama to move forward.

Only hours after the death was announced, lines were drawn by Republicans saying Scalia’s replacement should be named by the next president, who they hope will be a Republican.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Presidential candidates have also taken sides along party lines, some even contending that Scalia’s appointment should be of the same philosophy. But the Congressional Black Caucus is not having it.

“McConnell is reinforcing the Republican political agenda to disrupt governmental functions when the circumstances do not line up with their philosophy.  It is imperative that we have nine members of the United States Supreme Court deciding constitutional issues that are important to the American people,” wrote CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield in a statement. “It is absurd to suggest that President Obama should be denied the opportunity to nominate a qualified jurist to replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court.  The American people should clearly understand that Senate Republicans have a political agenda to pack the Court with conservative justices who would reverse years of progressive jurisprudence.”

He continued, “The Congressional Black Caucus urges President Obama to expeditiously nominate a replacement for Justice Scalia who has the scholarship, values and temperament to sit on the highest court of our country and decide cases based on established law rather than a political agenda.  We will vigorously confront Senate Republicans at every turn should they dismiss President Obama’s nomination.”

Benjamin L. Crump, president of the National Bar Association, the premier organization of Black lawyers and judges, was the first to issue a statement.

“One of the primary missions of the National Bar Association has always been to maintain the integrity of the judiciary by ensuring it is a diverse representation of all Americans, it is our hope that President Barack Obama will quickly nominate and the Senate timely confirm a nominee to fill the vacancy in the U.S. Supreme Court created by the death of Justice Scalia.”

Scalia is highly respected given his longevity on the court. He had served 30 years. But his brash opinions and even racially insensitive statements have given him a reputation of disrespect toward Black people. His recent implication that African-American students should attend “slower” colleges underscored that reputation.

Melanie Campbell, president/CEO of The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, also chimed in sending prayers and condolences to the Scalia family while listing crucial issues that are now at stake – many of specific importance to the Black community.

“It is our hope that President Obama will nominate someone who can serve the Supreme Court with compassion and a sense of justice particularly in matters such as civil rights, voting rights, reproductive justice, fair housing, education, marriage equality, immigration, racial and ethnic discrimination,” she said.

Wade Henderson, president/CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, describing Scalia as a “formidable figure on the Supreme Court for nearly three decades.”

Henderson said that “the Constitution that Justice Scalia revered provides a mechanism for filling judicial vacancies, and our elected officials must take that responsibility seriously. The work of the United States Supreme Court is too important to the nation to allow a vacancy to go unfilled for an extended period of time. We look forward to working with President Obama and the Senate to confirm a justice in short order.”

This Supreme Court appointment is particularly important to the civil rights community given that most civil rights or race-oriented cases end up being decided 5-4 by the nine-member court, with Scalia on the conservative side. Meanwhile with a court evenly divided 4-4 by philosophy, if a vote comes down the middle that way, the lower U. S. District Court’s ruling would stand.

But, in his statement, Obama was clear he would move ahead with the nomination despite the acrimony.

“These are responsibilities that I take seriously, as should everyone.  They’re bigger than any one party.  They are about our democracy.  They’re about the institution to which Justice Scalia dedicated his professional life, and making sure it continues to function as the beacon of justice that our Founders envisioned,” he said. “Justice Scalia dedicated his life to the cornerstone of our democracy:  The rule of law.  Tonight, we honor his extraordinary service to our nation and remember one of the towering legal figures of our time.”