13 May 2009

Culture Spot: Confirmation Process and the US Senate

Cartoon by Steve Breen of The San Diego Union-Tribune published on 04 May 2009

The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal judicial system and is presided by the Chief Justice of the United States and 8 Associate Justices. Justices are nominated by the President and have to be confirmed by the US Senate. Once appointed (désigné), a justice on the federal bench (magistrature) has a life tenure which ends only on his or her death, resignation (démission), retirement or impeachment (procédure de destitution).

The Senate confirmation process for a Supreme Court justice can be grueling (exténuant) and can become quite a political show due to the extreme importance of the position about to be filled. There is one political question that seems to take center stage in every confirmation hearing (audience): abortion (avortement)!

The confirmation process begins in the Senate Judiciary Committee with confirmation hearings where senators on that committee will exam and question the nominee on his interpretation of Constitutional law. Upon conclusion of this examination, the Judiciary Committee votes whether or not to refer the nomination for a confirmation vote on the Senate floor.

The Senate (made up of 100 senators – 2 per state) then proceeds to vote to confirm the president’s nominee to the nation’s highest court. The nominee may face severe opposition in the Senate.  According to the rules in the US Senate, a senator has the right during debate to speak as long as he wishes on any topic he or she chooses. This privilege is sometimes used to delay a vote and eventually kill the question before the Senate. The procedure of “talking a bill (projet, proposition) to death” is called a filibuster. It is also a verb: to filibuster. The filibustering senator doesn’t even have to talk about the subject in question before the Senate; some have read books or even the Bible out loud in order to keep the floor (parole). However, a filibuster can be halted by a supermajority, that is, 60 senators willing to invoke debate closure (clôture).

The cartoon above concerns the resignation of Justice David Souter at the end of June from the US Supreme Court giving President Obama his first opportunity to name someone to the Court. Even though Justice Souter was nominated by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, he ended up being a moderate to liberal judge on the Court disappointing most Conservatives. President Obama’s nomination is not expected to change the political makeup (composition) of the Supreme Court. He is expected to nominate another woman or minority (or perhaps someone who is both such as an African-American or Hispanic-American woman).

Three years ago, George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court after the resignation of Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, the first woman ever to serve on the court. The Judiciary Committee (then in Republican majority) voted strictly along party lines and sent the nomination to the Senate floor. A movement led by Democrat Senator John Kerry to filibuster the vote on the floor failed and Alito was confirmed. Senator Obama was part of that movement to filibuster confirmation of President Bush’s nominee.

Now that Republicans are in the minority in the Senate, some fear that they too may try to filibuster Obama’s nominee to the Court though it appears Democrats will have a 60 vote supermajority in the Senate once a contested election issue in Minnesota is resolved.

The cartoon below describes the driving issue in every confirmation hearing: abortion! It appears that all other questions are secondary. Ever since the 1973 Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade which overturned (faire annuler) many state and federal laws restricting abortion, the abortion issue has divided the nation into two camps: pro-life and pro-choice. Those in the pro-life camp want to see a conservative majority on the Court that will eventually overturn Roe v. Wade and those in the pro-choice camp want to protect the Roe v. Wade decision.

Cartoon by Chan Lowe of The South Florida Sun Sentinel published 4 May 2009.

Who are the 9 Justices of the United States Supreme Court?


Year Confirmed

Nominating  President

Judicial Leaning

Chief Justice John Roberts
(17th Chief Justice of the United States)


George W. Bush


Justice John Paul Stevens
(some say his advanced age may also give Pres. Obama an opportunity to fill his seat on the bench)
(only Associate Justice to serve under three Chief Justices & oldest member of the Court)


Gerald Ford


Justice Antonin Scalia


Ronald Reagan


Justice Anthony Kennedy


Ronald Reagan

swing vote

Justice David Souter (retiring end of June 2009, end of the Court’s term. Pres. Obama is expected to announce his nominee to replace soon.)


George H.W. Bush


Justice Clarence Thomas
(second African-American to serve on the Court)


George H.W. Bush


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
(suffering from cancer and is expected to retire soon giving Pres. Obama an opportunity to fill a seat on the bench )
(second woman and first Jewish woman to serve)


Bill Clinton


Justice Stephen Breyer


Bill Clinton


Justice Samuel Alito


George W. Bush


The Current Structure of the United States Senate

President of the Senate: US Vice President Joseph Biden, Jr. (former Democrat senator from Delaware)

The US Constitution states that the Vice President of the United States presides ex officio as President of the Senate. He (or perhaps she one day) can only vote if there is a 50/50 tie. Normally, the Vice President doesn’t preside on a daily basis but only on important occasions or if a vote may be tied.

President pro tempore: Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat - West Virginia).

In absence of the Vice President, the President pro tempore of the Senate is the highest-ranking official and may preside over the Senate. He is elected by his peers and by tradition, he is the most senior senator of the majority party. The President pro tempore is third in line to the presidency after the Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representative.

Majority Leader: Senator Harry Reid (Democrat – Nevada)

Minority Leader: Senator Mitch McConnell (Republican – Kentucky)

There are currently 59 members in the Democrat Caucus (57 Democrats and 2 Independents) and 40 members in the Republican Caucus. There is one unresolved seat from the state of Minnesota due to contested election results in November 2008.

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