Eric Davis: Sen. Leahy, Justice Ginsburg face big decisions

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., recently announced that he would not run for re-election in 2014. Johnson’s announcement could impact the career of Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy over the next two years.

Johnson is one of five senior Democratic senators who plan to retire next year. Four of these senators — Johnson himself, along with Sander Levin of Michigan, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia — represent states where Republican candidates would be considered competitive in open-seat Senate races. There are also four Senate Democratic incumbents — Mark Begich in Alaska, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, and Kay Hagan in North Carolina — who will face difficult re-election races next year in states where Democratic candidates have struggled in recent election cycles.

Democrats currently hold a five-seat majority in the Senate. Johnson’s retirement announcement, coupled with the vulnerable incumbents, marginally increases the chances that Republican candidates could gain the six seats needed to organize the Senate in January 2015.

Leahy is up for re-election in 2016, at which time he will be 76 years old and will have served in the Senate for 42 years. As the most senior Senate Democrat, Leahy is the president pro tem. He also chairs the Judiciary Committee. Democrats have held the Senate majority for approximately half the 38 years that Leahy has been in Washington. Leahy clearly enjoys being in the majority party much more than being in the minority.

I have believed for some time that a major consideration in Leahy’s decision whether to run for an eighth term in 2016, or to retire, will be whether the Democrats or the Republicans are the majority party in the Senate after the 2014 elections. If the Democrats can retain their majority next year, Leahy is more likely to run for re-election in 2016. However, if the Republicans were to win a narrow Senate majority, Leahy might well announce in the spring of 2015 that, after a long career in Washington, he has decided to return to his farm in Middlesex rather than seek another term. A Leahy retirement would mark one of the biggest shake-ups in Vermont politics in years.

Another person who might be looking at the 2014 Senate elections is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court. Justice Ginsburg, who turned 80 last month, is the oldest member of the Court, and the senior member of the Court’s liberal wing. Supreme Court Justices sometimes plan their retirements so that their successors can be nominated by a President, and confirmed by a Senate, who hold views broadly sympathetic to those of the retiring justice.

If Justice Ginsburg were to announce her retirement at the end of the Supreme Court’s current term in June, President Obama could nominate her successor and that person’s nomination could be considered by a Senate with a Democratic majority. If Ginsburg were to stay on the court past the 2014 election, there is the possibility that the nomination of her replacement could be filibustered or defeated by a Republican-controlled Senate.

If the Senate does consider a Supreme Court nomination later this year, Leahy, as chair of the Judiciary Committee, would have the primary responsibility of seeing that President Obama’s nominee is confirmed by the Senate. Leahy considers one of the most significant accomplishments of his current term shepherding Obama’s Supreme Court nominees — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — through the Senate. If Ginsburg were to retire later this year, Leahy would have a third opportunity to help confirm a new justice.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.


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