Justice Souter to Retire (Updated Post)

(Updated as this story has now been confirmed and updated a second time as I've thought some more about it.)


And so the question on everyone's mind (okay, on my mind) is this: What will it take to change Senate Judiciary Committee Rule IV in the event that the post-Specter-shift Republicans decide to play hardball? In today's Republican Party, Orrin Hatch and Lindsey Graham look like the best hopes to move Pres. Obama's nominee to the full Senate.

But let's suppose that the Republicans (now minus Specter) on the Judiciary Committee decide they want to filibuster Pres. Obama's nominee (oh, i don't know, let's say Pam Karlan) in the Committee, recognizing that the Dems (either with Al Franken seated or with the cooperation of one of the Maine Senators) can break a filibuster in the full Senate. Senate Rule XXVI authorizes each committee to make its own rules, which is how we get Judiciary Committee Rule IV. That can be amended by the committee, but presumably the proposal to amend Rule IV would itself be subject to the Rule IV procedure, and so if the Republican members of the committee are unwilling to allow a vote on Justice Karlan, then they're likely unwilling to allow a vote on an amendment to change Rule IV itself.

That leaves us with a couple of options: 1) Change Rule IV now, with the Chair deeming Specter still officially a Republican; 2) or change Senate Rule XXVI to limit the sorts of rules that a committee can employ. Each of these approaches would require Specter's cooperation (or the cooperation of either or both of the Maine Senators in the case of the full Senate move).

I should be clear that I'm not wild about either of these approaches. Although I generally don't like the filibuster for legislation, I think it can be justified with respect to judicial appointments, where one hopes for something approaching consensus. That's certainly how I felt when the Republicans had a Senate majority and the Presidency, and while politicians invariably flip on these issues depending on who is in power, I would like to think that academics have some broader obligation of consistency. Not that it won't be fun to watch each side break out the other side's speeches from a few years ago.

The Judiciary Committee's "mini-filibuster" rule (i.e., Rule IV) could, in theory, be justified on the same sort of grounds as the full Senate's filibuster rule (really the cloture rule), but given that the Judiciary Committee often attracts each party's most ideological Senators, there is a distinct possibility that instead of leading to centrist nominees, Rule IV could simply lead to gridlock. The fact that Rule IV apparently hasn't had that effect so far provides some reassurance, although it's possible that this is simply a function of Arlen Specter for the Republicans and the notorious lack of backbone for the Democrats. If I had to bet, I'd say that Lindsey Graham's recent statements favoring a "big tent" approach for the Republican Party going forward make him the most likely to cast at least a vote for ending committee debate on President Obama's nominee.

Much will depend, of course, on who that nominee is. Given the position of strength of the President and the Dems in the Senate overall, it's hard to imagine the Repubs winning a showdown based on either Judiciary Committee Rule IV or the filibuster rule in the full Senate, so long as President Obama nominates someone who is to the right of Hugo Chavez.

Posted by Mike Dorf