One of the advantages of being located in Washington, DC, is working and playing at the intersection of public relations and government.

More often than not, our clients have a government relations component to their communications strategy, so our team is often called upon to develop messaging and campaigns to influence the public affairs audience.

This also means that when big news happens in the nation’s capital, it’s often a topic of discussion with our clients – both in terms of gossip and potential impacts on our communications strategies.

The passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is one of those occasions. With all due respect to the man and those who mourn him, his death does lead immediately to political speculation and outcomes with high stakes for our clients and all Americans.

Scalia’s passing leaves the court tied between liberal and conservative justices, meaning that whomever President Obama appoints as a successor will sway the court in a liberal direction for years to come. (The next president may have opportunities to nominate as many as three or four more justices, heightening the implications of the 2016 race.) 

In the short run, it is an open question as to whether the Republican-controlled Senate will even consider any Obama nominee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already stated, “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president."

In my humble opinion, the American people already had a voice in the selection of the next justice, when they voted to elect and re-elect President Obama. The question of who will nominate Supreme Court justices over the next four years is an issue in every presidential election, and the American people decided the issue in 2008 and 2012. 

I don’t even see how it helps the Republicans to delay confirmation proceedings, because: a) it will damage their candidates for office this year by appealing only to the hard-core base; and b) even if voters choose a Republican for president for the next four years, the party’s ability to govern will be seriously compromised from having poisoned the well this year, and from similar acts of obstruction over the last eight years. 

Moreover, with Justice Scalia’s death, numerous important cases already under consideration by the court for this term may remain tied at 4-4, in which case the lower courts’ rulings on the various matters will stand. In many cases, this means liberal rulings that conservatives wanted overturned will remain in force for years to come.

Here are a few facts for perspective:

  • The Constitution states the President "shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint ... Judges of the Supreme Court."
  • Over the last 50 years, the median time between a President’s nomination and the Senate’s approval of a Supreme Court justice has been around 70 days. President Obama has more than 300 days remaining in office.
  • The longest wait for a confirmation hearing in the modern era was in 1987, when President Reagan’s nominee Robert Bork was rejected – for being perceived as too partisan – 108 days after his name was put forth.
  • The last nominee confirmed in an election year was current Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was nominated by a Republican, President Reagan, and confirmed by the Democratic-controlled Senate in February 1988.

Here at Dale Curtis Communications, we have our own opinions, but we serve clients of all political persuasions. Our job is to help marshal and amplify our clients’ facts and key messages in ways that help raise public awareness and shape public opinion, no matter which way the political winds are blowing.

Ordinarily, change and uncertainty are “good” for our business, because clients have a critical need to position themselves for success whether the Democrats or Republicans have the upper hand. That calls for savvy communications strategies that leverage and/or transcend the trends of the moment.

So on this snowy Monday morning in Washington, DC, we join with our colleagues throughout the public affairs world in watching this high-stakes battle unfold.