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Politics & Government

Obama Urges Republicans To Consider Supreme Court Nominee In Chicago

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, Barack Obama used ask the questions. Today he was on the receiving end. Law students quizzed the president about filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court. It was another opportunity for the president to press his case that Senate Republicans should grant a hearing for his nominee Merrick Garland. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now with more. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: All right. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has shown no sign of yielding to the president's appeals. He insists the choice of a Supreme Court justice should be left for the next president. What did Obama say today to try to change McConnell's mind?

HORSLEY: Well, the president says it's fine for Senate Republicans to vote no on his nominee, but he doesn't think it's OK for them to just stonewall and try to run out the clock for the next president. That he called a process breakdown. And he said, look; what if it works Mitch McConnell's way? A Republican wins the White House, and then that person tries to name his Supreme Court nominee next year?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: The notion that Democrats would then say, oh, well, we'll just go along with that...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: That is inconceivable, right? So now the Democrats say, well, you know, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. We're blocking - we'll wait four more years to see how the next president comes in.

HORSLEY: At that point, the president warns the court becomes just an extension of our polarized political system, and it really challenges the court's legitimacy in a dangerous way.

SHAPIRO: What are we seeing in terms of any cracks in the GOP opposition to holding a hearing for Judge Garland?

HORSLEY: Whatever cracks do show up, Ari, are quickly plastered over. You can take the case of Kansas Republican Jerry Moran who said at point, he wanted to proceed with a hearing and have a vote for Judge Garland. But Moran said he'd rather do his job and cast a no vote than appear to be ducking it. But he was pilloried by conservative Republicans, and he quickly backtracked.

For now, most Republicans in the Senate are more afraid of alienating their conservative base than they are of ticking off Democrats and Independents who want the judge to get a hearing. There have been some Republicans senators who say they're willing to meet with Garland, including Iowa's Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. But only two so far have been willing to buck the majority leader and say they're willing to have a hearing.

SHAPIRO: During this session in Chicago today, the president was also asked about why he chose Garland, who was the only white male among the finalists. Let's listen to part of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm just wondering what diverse characteristics Judge Garland would bring to the Supreme Court.

OBAMA: Well, he's from Skokie

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: I think which is very important.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: It's a great place. It's a great town.

HORSLEY: More seriously, the president went on to say he has been aggressive about putting African-Americans, Latinos, women, gays and lesbians on the federal bench, but he says he never went looking for a judge to fit a particular racial or gender qualification.

In terms of ideology, he said he's not looking for a judicial activist to be in the vanguard of social change. He generally prefers to leave that to the political process. And he quoted an old law school adage that courts tend to make better shields than swords.

SHAPIRO: And in the meantime, how is this standoff affecting the work of the Supreme Court itself?

HORSLEY: Well, late last month, we saw a 4-4 deadlock in an important case involving public-sector unions that left in place a lower court decision which was frankly in favor of the Democrats. The court is also looking to try to avoid a 4-4 deadlock in an important birth control case. It asked the parties to come back with more information after oral arguments were heard. But these kind of tie cases leave a lot of uncertainty, and we could see more of them. There's a reason there's an odd number of judges on the High Court.

SHAPIRO: Justices - thanks. NPR's Scott Horsley.

HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.