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How Supreme Court Vacancy Could Change Dynamics Of Presidential Election


Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to ever sit on the Supreme Court, has died. The cause - complications from cancer, which she had battled on and off for years. Ginsburg's death comes just days after President Trump released a list of names of people he would nominate to the court should he be elected to a second term. And a vacancy on the court long held by a liberal justice sets up the potential for an epic political fight and is sure to drastically change the dynamics of the presidential election. Here to sort through all of this is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

And, Mara, the last time a sitting Supreme Court justice died during their term, it was Justice Antonin Scalia. It was during the final year of President Obama's second term. And at that time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell very publicly blocked President Obama's nominee to the court - that was Merrick Garland - because he said it was too close to an election. What are people saying about how this will play out this time around?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, Mitch McConnell made it pretty clear that if a vacancy came up before the election, he would move forward with that. As a matter of fact, he was asked about this in 2019. He was asked, what if a Supreme Court justice were to die in 2020? What would you do? Here's what McConnell said back then.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: If a Supreme Court justice was to die next year, what would you do?

MITCH MCCONNELL: We'd fill it.

LIASSON: So he was pretty clear that the McConnell rule would not work if there's a Republican president and a Republican Senate. As a matter of fact, McConnell issued a statement today that said in the last midterm election in 2016, Americans elected a Republican Senate majority because we were - we - they wanted us to check and balance a Democratic president. By contrast, Americans reelected our majority in 2016. I think the bottom line is that he's going to push someone through once Trump nominates a person because he can and also because this is a - an existential goal for the Republicans. They're facing kind of demographic changes in the country. They have to cement their hold on the courts. This is something that Republicans and conservatives have wanted to do for 40 years ever since Roe. And it's unclear. The one thing McConnell said in his statement was that President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate. He didn't say anything about hearings. It's possible that since there's so few days left, maybe the nominee goes to the floor without hearings.

CORNISH: This was a fight that Ginsburg had hoped to avoid, telling Justice Stevens shortly before his death that she hoped to serve as long as he did until age 90.


RUTH BADER GINSBURG: And my dream is that I will stay at the court as long as he did.

CORNISH: Can you talk about Democratic voters and whether or not they have been animated by this issue?

LIASSON: Well, that's one of the big questions. What effect does this have on the campaign? Republican voters have generally been more focused on the courts as an issue than Democrats. There are a lot of reasons for that. Partly, it's because Republicans felt they lost the court. And ever since Roe was decided, they've been working hard to get it back. They're now within - they have a conservative majority on the court but not a big one. With a third Trump nomination, they could have a 6-3 majority and cement a conservative majority on the court for a generation.

Democrats, I think, were lulled into thinking they had the court. And for a long time, they did have a majority. There have been a lot of efforts to educate Democrats about the importance of the courts. I think this - the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was, of course, a Democratic liberal icon, a feminist icon - I think it has the potential to energize Democrats. But the bottom line is that this is a good thing for Donald Trump politically. It gives him the chance to make the election about something other than himself if he can sustain that. I think it also helps Senate candidates in red states because this is something their base cares about. And we'll see. Which side does this event energize more? We know that the election is going to get much more polarized because of this.

CORNISH: That's NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.