Friday, December 9, 2016
The Importance of Constitutional Norms, or “Why the Vice President’s Party Can’t Do Whatever It Wants in the Senate”
David Waldman at Daily Kos has advanced a proposal getting a good deal of attention on social media to have the Senate confirm Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court on January 3rd at noon. The basic idea is to have Vice President Biden use his authority as presiding officer to recognize the Democratic leader (Senator Durbin, as Senator Reid’s and Senator Schumer’s terms will have expired) while there are only 66 senators (32 Democrats, 2 Democratic-caucusing independents, and 32 Republicans) and jam through Judge Garland’s confirmation (his having been renominated by President Obama that very moment) before the newly elected 34 senators have been sworn in (and bring with them a 52-48 Republican majority, assuming Republican John Kennedy wins the runoff in Louisiana).
Sean Davis argues in devastating detail why this would, among other things, flaunt the 20th Amendment (providing that Senate terms end and begin at noon on January 3rd) and a host of Senate Rules and practices, including Rule II.1 (providing that “the presentation of the credentials of Senators elect…shall always be in order” and take precedence over a motion to confirm a nomination) and Rule XXXI (providing that a nomination may not be acted upon the same day it is received). Waldman’s argument appears to rely on the view that the Senate is not a continuing body and that a majority (for a few minutes after noon on January 3rd anyway) can ignore or amend the Standing Rules of the Senate at will.
To Davis’s arguments and as a devotee of congressional procedure (everyone needs a hobby), I would add another based on a reductio. The Vice President is constitutionally the President of the Senate, and the presiding officer has the power of recognizing senators. But Rule XIX on recognition of senators by the presiding officer is just another rule. As long as Senate rules are amendable and disregardable from the chair, why couldn’t Waldman’s scheme be executed simply by having the Vice President recognize a Democratic senator (anytime, not just on January 3rd) for a unanimous consent request to confirm Judge Garland and ignore objections from Republicans? Or bring up the motion to confirm Judge Garland on a voice vote, assert that the ayes have it, ignore the request for a roll call vote, and table the motion to reconsider?
And then there are other problems, to put it mildly. For example, the President signs a commission for a judge upon notification from the Secretary of the Senate that the Senate has consented to a nomination. The Secretary of the Senate is a continuing office, presently held by a Republican appointee. If after all of this manipulation of the rules the Secretary objects and refuses (quite reasonably) to carry out the ministerial duty of transmitting to the President notification that the nomination has been confirmed, then what? Can the President sign a commission without notification from the Secretary that the Senate has consented to the nomination? (As an aside, there are also significant problems with a recess appointment to the Supreme Court in January, for the reasons spelled out in NLRB v. Noel Canning (2014) and because after January 20th Congress could enact a joint resolution ending its session, adjourn sine die, and reconvene for a new session, thereby causing the recess appointment to expire.)
This is all absurd, of course. But the larger point to make here is that the norms governing our institutions are partly a product of mores and practices (such as respect for established parliamentary procedure) reflecting underlying judgments about political and legal authority. I’m inclined to think these constitutional norms are still legal norms for reasons Jeremy Waldron has argued (Are Constitutional Norms Legal Norms?, 75 Fordham L. Rev. 1697 (2006)). We might all wish that those mores and practices--including the Senate’s consideration and confirmation of federal judges--were in better repair. But we would do well, I suggest, as lawyers and law professors amid these divisive times to foster the constitutional norms that have served us well, however imperfectly and however much we want "our" side to win. "And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?"