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RBG's death sets stage for US election battle

September 19, 2020

As the US presidential election kicks into overdrive, filling the Supreme Court seat has already become a pivotal matter for voters. Despite Republican pledges not to, US President Donald Trump could still fill the seat.

US President Trump is seen silhouetted while on stage during a campaign event at the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee
Image: Tom Brenner/Reuters

The death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday sent shockwaves across the American political establishment with Republicans and Democrats weighing the loss — and how to move forward.

From her deathbed, Ginsburg told her granddaughter, "My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed."

But whether that wish comes true will largely be in the hands of US President Donald Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and whether they have the desire, time and votes to confirm a new Supreme Court justice.

Traditionally during an election year, a Supreme Court Justice nominee is not considered by the US Senate, which needs a simple majority to confirm a candidate put forth by the president.

However, some Republican lawmakers have called that tradition into question — despite invoking it four years ago.

In 2016, McConnell, a Republican, refused to allow the upper house of US Congress to consider then-President Barack Obama's nominee citing the tradition and saying that American voters should have a say in determining who serves on the country's highest court in the election that was at that point seven months away.

On Friday, however, McConnell said he would ensure that Trump's nominee would have a vote in the Senate, where Republicans currently have a 53-47 majority.

"President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate," McConnell said in a statement made just 45 days before the 2020 election.

Read more: Opinion: Trump offers Republicans a far-right Supreme Court

'People need to decide'

Other Republican lawmakers joined in support, including endangered Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, who said Trump has "every right to pick a new justice before the election."

However, not all Republicans were in support of the idea.

In an interview published hours before the announcement of Ginsburg's death, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she "would not vote to confirm" a replacement for the late justice, describing it as a choice "that the people needed to decide."

"The closer you get to an election, that argument becomes even more important," said Murkowski.

At least four Republican senators would have to vote against confirmation to stall the process. 

Back in 2016, when faced with the prospect of a left-leaning appointee, an even longer list of Republican politicians said they would be against confirming a Supreme Court nominee in an election year, including influential senators Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Read more: US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion of women's rights

Should voters decide?

Trump has yet to comment on whether he would try to get to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Instead, Trump esteemed Ginsburg as a "titan of the law" who "demonstrated that one can disagree without being disagreeable toward one's colleagues or different points of view."

Although Congressional reports suggest that the average time for confirmation is around 70 days for a Supreme Court justice if Trump loses he could still nominate a candidate and have the person approved before the next president, in this case presumably Joe Biden, is inaugurated and takes office.

ls/aw (Reuters, AP)