In a recent column, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein argues that Republican senators who have filibustered some of Barack Obama’s judicial nominees are more to blame than Democrats who previously filibustered GOP nominees because the Democrats only tried to block nominees who were “out of the mainstream,” while the GOP targeted any nominees whom they “strongly disagree” with on constitutional issues. Sunstein does recognize that “Senate Democrats deserve a fair share of the blame for this dismal situation” because “their use of the out-of-the-mainstream test sometimes veered disturbingly close to the disagreement test.” But he claims that the GOP has gone further than the Democrats did.
Sunstein’s critique is overdrawn. If the Republicans really tried to filibuster any Obama nominees with whom they have strong disagreements, they would have filibustered virtually all of them, not just a few. In reality, they have targeted nominees who they thought were even more liberal than the average nominees put up by a Democratic administration and/or had a “paper trail” that made them unusually vulnerable to attack. Democrats pursued a similar strategy during recent Republican administrations.
Most of the nominees that Democrats aggressively opposed during the Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II administrations were well within the mainstream of modern conservative constitutional thought. That was certainly true of high-profile cases such as Miguel Estrada and Peter Keisler. Similarly, most of the Democratic nominees targeted by Republicans under Clinton or Obama were well within the mainstream of modern liberal constitutional theory.
The underlying reality here is that there is a deep chasm between mainstream conservative views on constitutional interpretation and mainstream liberal ones. The standard-issue conservative Republican jurist believes that the Constitution provides extensive protection for gun rights and property rights, that the courts should enforce significant federalism-based constraints on Congress’ powers, that all or most affirmative action programs violate the Fourteenth Amendment, that Roe v. Wade should be overruled, and that there is no general right to privacy in the Constitution. The standard-issue liberal Democratic jurist thinks that all of the above is wrong. Each side believes that the other side is not only wrong about some particular issues, but has a fundamentally defective approach to constitutional interpretation and the role of judicial review. Much of what the conservative mainstream believes about constitutional law is completely anathema to the liberal mainstream, and vice versa.
Yet both sets of views are clearly within the “mainstream” of their respective parties. And both also enjoy substantial public support. I won’t run through all the relevant survey data here. But both liberal and conservative positions on most of the above constitutional issues have considerable appeal (usually at least 30-40 percent of the publidc). Neither is confined to a small clique of “extremists.”
Given the deep divide between the conservative mainstream and the liberal one, it is no surprise that the two sides have gradually escalated their efforts to impede the other’s judicial nominees over the last thirty years. If you think that the other party’s nominees are not just suboptimal but threats to fundamental constitutional principles, you are likely to seize on any possible tools that could be used to block them. . . .