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Sen. Leahy: Delaying Supreme Court Appointment Would Be Irresponsible

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And this morning we are marking the legacy of Justice Antonin Scalia. He died this weekend while traveling in Texas. He was 79 years old and had been on the Supreme Court for nearly three decades. Scalia was a leading conservative voice in American jurisprudence. Democrat Patrick Leahy is ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He joins me now on the line. Good morning, Senator. Thanks for being with us.

PATRICK LEAHY: Good morning. It's - I'm calling from very, very cold Vermont.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Well, thank you for making time to talk with us on this morning. President Obama called Antonin Scalia a towering figure, a towering legal mind of our time. How do you regard his legacy?

LEAHY: Well, he and I disagreed on a lot of issues, but we always got along personally very well. In fact, one memory I have is standing, on a Saturday morning, wearing kind of our old clothes, watching our two youngest sons playing soccer on the school grounds. But he was a driving conservative - of course, actually, some would say way beyond conservatism - on the Supreme Court. And he had his very strong opinions - anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-other things - and he used his position to argue for them. But he was a very significant figure in the conservative wing of the Supreme Court.

MARTIN: His death obviously leaves an important vacancy on the court in an election year. The majority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has already come out and said that the president should not fill that vacancy until after the next president has been elected. As majority leader, doesn't he have the power to at least slow that process?

LEAHY: Well, he could of course but that would not be responsible. The fact is the president - when any president is elected, there is an understanding that there's going to be a vacancy in the Supreme Court or any court. They're going to make nominations. And that's - in fact, President Obama would not be fulfilling his duties to the Constitution of the country if he didn't make a nomination. And I told the White House last night I was very pleased that the president says he intends to move quickly on naming one. It would be irresponsible for the Senate then not to hold a hearing and vote. We got plenty of time.

MARTIN: Would you feel the same way if the situation were reversed, if there was a Republican president and a liberal justice had passed away, leaving a vacancy?

LEAHY: That's a very fair question. And the fact is President Reagan's last two years, we had a Democratic majority in the Senate. I was on the Judiciary Committee. And in the last year of his term, we brought up and voted on his nomination to the Supreme Court. We were told it was a conservative nomination. But we felt the president had the right to nominate. And it was passed at 97 to zero. This was a Democratic majority in the Senate. So I think what Senator McConnell and others are saying - I just heard something on the debate last night - it was perfectly all right for the Democrats to vote on President Reagan's nomination in almost exactly the same situation. But it would be terrible for Republicans to show the same devotion to the Constitution with President Obama.

MARTIN: Just a couple seconds left, Senator. Are you optimistic that that position will be filled before the president's term is up?

LEAHY: Well, I hope it will be. I think that if it's not, if Republicans block it, a nomination made in good faith, and treat Obama differently than Democrats treated Reagan, I think a whole lot of Republican Senators are not going to be reelected this fall.

MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there. Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Thanks so much.

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