Within moments of widespread media reports that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will retire when the current term ends this summer, the Washington parlor game of making a short list of judges President Joe Biden might consider to replace him began. After all, Biden had pledged during the campaign that he would nominate a Black woman to the nine-Justice panel in an historic first.
There’s one major problem facing Biden’s prospects, though: he might not be able to win confirmation for the expected pick. So much of influence in Washington isn’t in the press conferences or performative turns on cable news. The real power comes from mastering the process by which it is transferred, accumulated and defended. And, when it comes to managing a generational shift of power in America’s judicial system, no one has proven more adept than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie. So far, so good, given past Senators have changed the rules for judicial nominees to get across the finish line with just 51 votes. The so-called nuclear option is meant as a last resort, but with the exception of Chief Justice John Roberts, none of the current conservative Justices cleared a 60-vote benchmark.