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The Senate, judges, and the filibuster

As a showdown looms over judicial nominees, both sides of the aisle turn to the Constitution.

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Democrats and their supporters stress that the Senate must follow its own rules when carrying out advice and consent responsibilities. The filibuster rules are designed to protect the interests of the minority party by creating an incentive for majority senators to reach out for compromise rather than adopting a winner-take-all approach. The result of compromise is almost always better government, they say.

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"Democratic senators represent a majority of the population, but they are a minority in the Senate," says Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "The filibuster in part is a reflection of that - the way in which senators who represent the majority can act as a check on the majority of senators who represent a minority of the population."

Professor Chemerinsky says the Republican focus on a majority vote is misplaced. "The filibuster doesn't change the fact that to be confirmed it takes a majority," he says. "The filibuster's role is what number of votes does it take to end debate. And there is nothing in the Constitution about the number of votes it takes to end debate."

Not every constitutional scholar is siding with either the Democrats or the Republicans. "I think both sides are wrong," says John McGinnis, a constitutional law professor at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

Professor McGinnis and Michael Rappaport of the University of San Diego School of Law have identified what they see as a constitutional anomaly in how the Senate rules function. First, they say, the Republicans are wrong by insisting that judicial confirmation is limited to a majority vote. "There is nothing in the advice and consent clause that says the Senate cannot choose to have a confirmation rule by something other than a majority," McGinnis says.

Second, they say, the Democrats are wrong by insisting that the Senate rules can require more than a majority of senators to change any rule. "If a majority could adopt a supermajority rule that could not be repealed by the majority, they could do all kinds of things," says Professor Rappaport. "It would not be necessary to pass a constitutional amendment when the First Congress adopted the Bill of Rights. They could have passed a statute and then just one house, the Senate, could have said, 'This statute shall not be repealed without the consent of 100 percent,' " he says.

"That is extremely odd to think that a single house of Congress could insulate something when in fact legislation requires both houses of Congress to pass, and presentment to the president," Rappaport also says.

The professors say there would be nothing unconstitutional about a Senate rule requiring 60 votes to confirm judicial appointments, but a simple majority of senators must always have the ability to change the rule.

"I disagree on every level," Chemerinsky says. "If Congress were ever to say it takes a 100 percent vote - or 60 or 80 percent - to change this law ... I think that is unconstitutional entrenchment."

To Senate historian Richard Baker, such heated debates are nothing new. "Isn't it wonderful to drape the mantle of the Constitution around what it is you want to accomplish?" he says. "You can't blame people for trying, and they have been doing that for a long time."

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