A Baptist church-state expert welcomed President Obama’s March 16 announcement of a nominee for a Supreme Court seat vacated by the death last month of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.
In a Rose Garden ceremony Wednesday morning, the president announced his selection of Merrick Garland, chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, a centrist nominee likely to receive bipartisan support if the Senate moves forward with confirmation.
“The Baptist Joint Committee welcomes the announcement of the president’s nominee, which is the first step in restoring the Supreme Court to full strength,” BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said in a statement. “The Senate should hold hearings and provide an up-or-down vote on the nomination to fulfill its constitutional duties.”
Walker, who since 1999 has led the religious liberty coalition representing denominational groups including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and American Baptist Churches USA, wrote a column in the March 2016 edition of Report from the Capital saying the suggestion by some that Scalia’s replacement should not be considered until after the fall election is a bad idea.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has an odd number of justices for a reason,” Walker wrote. “The prospect of a 4-4 decision on very important cases — even where it might serve the positions advanced by the Baptist Joint Committee — is unacceptable for any longer than is absolutely necessary. Any delay until after the inauguration in January 2017 would mean a vacancy for more than a year — probably deep into the 2016-2017 term. This is unacceptable.”
In February the BJC joined a diverse group of religious organizations in a letter asking senators to move swiftly to fulfill their constitutional responsibility of providing “advice and consent” on the president’s Supreme Court nominee.
On Wednesday Obama asked Republicans in the Senate to give Garland a fair hearing, and then an up-or-down vote.
“I have fulfilled my constitutional duty,” the president said. “Now it’s time for the Senate to do theirs. Presidents do not stop working in the final year of their term. Neither should a senator.”
Walker said in his column the BJC would not formally support or oppose any nominee but has in the past and will in the future critique his or her expressed views and record on matters pertaining to religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
“The Baptist Joint Committee does not support or oppose judicial nominees but seeks to educate the public about the importance of the courts in upholding religious liberty,” Walker added March 16. “Judge Merrick Garland appears to be eminently qualified to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. We look forward to reviewing Judge Garland’s record, particularly his participation in decisions and expressed views on religious liberty and the separation of church and state.”
Before becoming a judge, Garland was a prosecutor who supervised Justice Department investigations into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
He would not add to the court’s religious diversity. Garland is Jewish, like three of the current justices. The other five are Catholic.