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Deadlock on key case demonstrates why Supreme Court seat needs to be filled

The recent 4-4 deadlock on the Supreme Court, resulting in a temporary victory for organized labor, is an illustration of why it is in the interest of the nation to fill the vacancy on the court. The sooner the better.

The case challenged the constitutionality of public-sector unions collecting what are called agency fees from workers who chose not to join nor wanted to pay for the union’s collective bargaining activities.

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association was brought by the Center for Individual Rights, a libertarian group. As reported in the New York Times, the group chose an unusual legal path. It responded to signals from the Supreme Court’s more conservative justices and asked the lower courts to rule against its clients, 10 teachers and a Christian education group. That strategy allowed the case to be appealed more quickly to the Supreme Court, where the plaintiffs expected a 5-4 decision in their favor.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s death suddenly changed the landscape. For the time being, the lower court’s decision stands. But the case will almost certainly return to the Supreme Court eventually. The First Amendment issues involved are too important not to be resolved by the Supreme Court.

Until Scalia’s seat is filled, other litigation also faces a similar 4-4 outcome. History has shown that whenever there is an even number of justices, those remaining strive to prevent a split vote, but some will happen. That leaves lower court rulings, sometimes conflicting with each other, in place. It’s a situation that is not good for the country and should be resolved as quickly as possible.

The president has nominated Judge Merrick B. Garland to fill the vacancy. While he appears to have the credentials for the Supreme Court, it is up to the Senate to consider his fitness for the post by holding hearings and eventually a vote. However, Senate Republicans refuse to even take up the nomination. Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he would be open to holding hearings on Garland – after the election. Disappointing.

Garland is far from a liberal firebrand. He received wide Republican support in his confirmation to the Court of Appeals.

Republicans are worried that Garland will tip the court to the left. They want the next president to make the selection, as Democrats probably would want if the situation were reversed.

While that may appear to be smart politics, it’s constitutionally flawed and will hamper the court’s ability to carry out its job. By the time another candidate is nominated by the next president and confirmed, nearly all of the Supreme Court term that starts this fall will be over, subjecting the nation to the possibility of a year of 4-4 votes on key issues.

Senate Republicans need to do their job and consider Garland’s nomination.