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The Supremes: Who is on Trump's Supreme Court wish list and why is it so important?

Liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last week, setting up a potentially divisive battle to replace her.

Trump pays respects to Ginsburg beside her coffin at the Supreme Court building.
Trump pays respects to Ginsburg beside her coffin at the Supreme Court building.
Image: Michael Brochstein/PA Images

US PRESIDENT DONALD Trump has said he will nominate someone to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court this weekend.

Liberal icon Ginsburg died last week aged 87, setting up a potentially divisive battle to fill the ninth seat on the highest court in the US.

A new Supreme Court justice is appointed when they are nominated by the US president and confirmed by a vote in the Senate.

Trump’s Republican party has a six-seat majority in the Senate, but Democrats have argued that it would be inappropriate to appoint a new justice so close to elections.

The US presidential election is being held on 3 November, with 35 of 100 Senate seats also up for grabs on that same day.

With Republicans defending 23 seats and Democrats defending 12 seats, there is the potential for the control of both the White House and Senate to change on election day.

In those circumstances, Democrats have argued that it would be wrong to nominate a new Supreme Court justice ahead of the elections.

They cite the example of 2016, when Democratic president Barack Obama’s nominee to replace justice Antonin Scalia, months before the election, did not even get a hearing in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has argued that the situation was different four years ago because each party controlled one of the houses.

McConnell and Republicans say that with their current control of the White House and the Senate, they have the right to fill court seats at any time they wish.

The choice of the ninth seat is vital because being on the Supreme Court is a lifetime position, giving the court significant power to shape US laws and society.

Five of the eight current members of the court were appointed by Republican presidents, including two by Trump.

Despite being appointed by President George W Bush, Chief Justice John Roberts has disappointed some conservatives by occasionally siding with liberal-leaning judges on the Supreme Court.

The ideological balance on the Supreme Court is therefore very fine, potentially 4-4, so the appointment of Ginsburg’s replacement is seen as vital.

So who is in the frame?

Speaking on Sunday, Trump said he would put forward a female nominee to replace Ginsburg.

There are currently two other female justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Both are progressives that were appointed by Barack Obama.

Two female Conservatives have therefore emerged as favourites for the vacancy.

One is Amy Coney Barrett, a 48-year-old federal appeals court judge based in Chicago.

supreme-court-barrett Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Source: Robert Franklin

A fervently anti-abortion Catholic and an academic, Barrett has been praised for her well-thought-out arguments but has limited experience in the courtroom. She has only been a federal judge since 2017, when she was appointed by Trump.

Barrett grew up in a New Orleans suburb and attended Catholic girls’ school before graduating magna cum laude from Rhodes College in Tennessee and then earning her law degree at Notre Dame University, where she was editor of the law review and graduated at the top of her class.

She was a law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative pillar of the Supreme Court until his death in February 2016.

In law journals, Barrett has professed opinions heavily influenced, according to her critics, by traditional religious values.

The second favourite is Barbara Lagoa, 52, a federal judge from Miami.

Analysts have said Lagoa, as a Cuban-American, could help Trump win votes in the key state of Florida.

Lagoa is “excellent, she’s Hispanic, she’s a terrific woman,” Trump told reporters. “We love Florida.”

Lagoa was the first Hispanic woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Florida.

Last week, the 52-year-old judge was part of the federal appeals court panel that ruled that ex-felons in Florida cannot vote until they have paid any fees or fines owed to the state, a decision critics say unconstitutionally disenfranchises people unable to pay.

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Joan Larsen, a conservative pillar

Larsen, who sits on the federal appeals court in Cincinnati, Ohio, has developed a reputation as a solid conservative, opposed to the extension of gay rights and having taken a tough stance on the treatment of prisoners.

She also clerked for Justice Scalia and taught law at the University of Michigan before her nomination to that state’s supreme court.

If Trump doesn’t follow through on his pledge to nominate a woman, a number of other suggested candidates have also been suggested.

Thomas Hardiman, a fierce pro-gun advocate

A federal appeals court judge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Hardiman has drawn attention by arguing, among other things, that the First Amendment to the US Constitution would not authorise citizens to film police officers.

Hardiman grew up the son of a taxi driver in Massachusetts and became the first member of his family to go to college. He then financed his law studies at Georgetown University in Washington by driving a cab.

A former Republican activist seen as solidly conservative, he has served alongside Trump’s sister, Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, who reportedly has recommended him to her brother.

In several capital cases, Hardiman has backed prosecutors seeking the death penalty. He has also supported intrusive searches of detainees newly arrived in prison, even those there briefly and seen as posing no security risk.

Raymond Kethledge, a strict constitutionalist

A 53-year-old judge originally appointed by George W Bush, Kethledge grew up in Michigan and now serves on the federal appeals court for the Sixth Circuit, which includes the Great Lakes state.

A fervent defender of free enterprise and individual rights – notably to private property and arms – Kethledge is considered a judicial originalist, meaning he believes the US Constitution must be strictly interpreted as it was understood by its 18th-century authors.

A senator?

Trump need not necessarily nominate a sitting judge.

Republican senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley are also on Trump’s reported list of candidates. Were he to nominate one of them, the choice would be seen as more political than choosing a sitting judge.

- With reporting by © – AFP 2020

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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