With time running out on President Obama’s nomination of Circuit Judge Merrick B. Garland to be a Supreme Court Justice, a federal trial judge in Washington, D.C., on Thursday threw out a New Mexico lawyer’s lawsuit seeking to force a vote in the Senate.
U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras, in a five-page opinion, did not rule on the legal merits of the lawyer’s case, but simply found that the lawsuit had been filed in the capacity of a citizen who claimed his own rights had been violated by Senate inaction, and that was nolt enough to justify court jurisdiction to decide the case.
Treating the claim by Santa Fe lawyer Steven S. Michel as a request for the court “to assume a position of authority over the governmental acts of another and co-equal department,” the judge said that a court could act only to protect “a uniquely injured individual.” The New Mexico lawyer failed to show that, the judge declared.
Judge Garland’s nomination to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia has now been pending in the Senate, without any action at all, for eight months, with the Senate’s Republican leadership insisting on holding the nomination opportunity open for the newly elected president. The GOP leaders made that commitment within hours after Justice Scalia died last February. Garland was nominated on March 16.
While there have been at least two other lawsuits seeking to compel the Senate to consider the Garland nomination, the case of Michel v. McConnell had appeared to be a more serious attempt because it sought to overcome all of the constitutional and procedural obstacles that ordinarily prevent courts from second-guessing how the Senate does its work.
But Michel’s lawsuit was dismissed based on just one of those obstacles — the need to show direct, personal harm from the Senate’s decision not to move the Garland nomination, even to a hearing, let alone hold a final up-or-down vote. Under the Constitution’s Article III, as interpreted for decades by the courts, the federal courts only have authority to decide a live “case or controversy,” and that means that the individual or group filing the lawsuit must be able to prove a clear injury resulting from government action — or inaction.
Michel had claimed that, under the Seventeenth Amendment, which changed the way members of the U.S. Senate are chosen to the method of direct election, he as a voter was guaranteed an opportunity to cast his vote for an effective member of the Senate. The two senators from New Mexico for whom Michel said he had voted, he had argued, were being deprived of an opportunity to vote on the Garland nomination, and that violated Michel’s own vote in favor of those senators’ elections.
The judge concluded that this “vote-dilution” claim, if it amounted to that, was shared by all of the nation’s voters, so Michel could not lay claim to an injury personal to himself. Michel, the judge concluded, must turn to “the political branches, not the judiciary,” to press his claim.
The Senate had opposed the Michel lawsuit, relying on a lengthy list of constitutional arguments, including that he lacked “standing” under Article III. That is the sole basis on which Judge Contreras based his ruling in dismissing the case.
The Garland nomination remains technically pending in the Senate. If, as is generally expected, the Senate takes no action on the nomination when it meets in a post-election session, the nomination will be sent back to the White House at the end of that session. The nomination thus is expected to be open for President-elect Donald Trump to make after his inauguration on January 20.
There is, as yet, no firm indication of what the new president’s plan is for the Scalia seat on the Court.