WASHINGTON — Two years ago, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono had some choice words for Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when she passed him in the Capitol hallway.
“Do the right thing,” she told him.
At the time, Hirono and her Democratic colleagues were pressuring McConnell to delay a confirmation vote for Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court until allegations that he sexually assaulted someone as a teenager could be fully vetted.
Hirono has a similar message for McConnell today after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a revered associate justice who was a reliable vote for the left.
“Why can’t you live up to your word?” she said.
In an interview with Civil Beat, Hirono said she’s frustrated with McConnell over how he’s trying to orchestrate a confirmation vote on a new Supreme Court nominee before the Nov. 3 election, saying it amounts to “stealing.”
In 2016, McConnell refused to start the confirmation process for Merrick Garland, a federal judge on the D.C. circuit that then-President Barack Obama nominated to replace Antonin Scalia after his death in February of that year. Even though Obama nominated Garland eight months before the general election, McConnell said Scalia’s successor should be chosen by the next president.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” McConnell said then.
The Kentucky senator has since reversed course. His justification now is that Republicans control both the White House and the Senate whereas in 2016 that wasn’t the case.
Others in the GOP have joined McConnell, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Judiciary Committee that will oversee the nomination process. In 2016, he publicly declared that he would hold off on confirming a new Supreme Court justice in an election year. He even dared the public to hold him to it.
“I want you to use my words against me,” Graham said during a Judiciary Committee meeting. “If there’s a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say, ‘Lindsey Graham said let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.’”
Hirono says she hopes American voters recognize the hypocrisy and the lies for what they are so that they can “organize, mobilize and vote.”
“I’m just saying to everybody you have clear choices,” Hirono said. “You can make a difference by making those choices based on who’s actually screwing you over. It’s not the Democrats.”
Trump has yet to name a nominee, but McConnell and many in his party have already made clear that they intend to vote in favor of whoever he picks to replace Ginsburg, a maneuver that would solidify a 6-3 conservative majority for years to come.
Hirono sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee that is charged with vetting whoever Trump chooses, but she said the process would be a “rush job” and a “sham” because the result is preordained.
Instead, she’s focusing her attention on warning voters about the possible ramifications of losing Ginsburg and replacing her with a conservative.
At the top of the list, Hirono said, is the Affordable Care Act, which provides health insurance to millions of Americans. A Republican challenge to the Obama-era law is on the docket in November, and some say that a court that leans farther to the right could pose a threat to the legislation as a whole.
“My job right now as I see it is to let the American people know that the clear and present danger is to their health care,” Hirono said. “I’m fighting back. What everybody should do is fight back.”
Hirono understands Democrats don’t have much leverage when it comes to stopping McConnell and Senate Republicans who hold a 53-47 majority in the chamber.
Only two Republicans — Sens. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, and Susan Collins, of Maine — have said they would oppose voting on a Ginsburg replacement before Election Day. Collins in particular said a new associate justice should be selected by whoever wins on Nov. 3.
“In order for the American people to have faith in their elected officials, we must act fairly and consistently — no matter which political party is in power,” Collins said in a statement.
Trump has signaled he has two women judges under consideration — Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa, both of whom Trump appointed as federal appeals court judges.
Barrett is considered the more controversial of the two. She’s a former Notre Dame law professor and devout Catholic who conservatives hope would undermine the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion law if given the chance.
Lagoa on the other hand is a Cuban American from Florida who could help the president shore up support in the swing state.
Twenty years ago she was involved in the high profile immigration and custody battle over Elian Gonzalez of Cuba and in a questionnaire submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee said she considered Roe v. Wade “settled law.”
Lagoa was confirmed with bipartisan Senate support, 80-15, while Barrett’s vote fell almost entirely along party lines, 55-43. Both Hirono and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz voted against the judges’ confirmations to the federal bench.
Hirono’s built a reputation on the Senate Judiciary Committee as a tough questioner who asks every nominee whether they’ve ever been accused of sexual misconduct.
While she’s voted in favor of a handful of Trump nominees over the past four years, she said she can’t imagine a situation in which the president nominates someone who would be palatable to her interests of protecting a woman’s right to choose, workers rights to organize, the Affordable Care Act and the environment.
She said she hopes voters take the future of the courts as seriously as she does so that they understand what’s at stake in the upcoming election, otherwise Trump and his GOP backers in the Senate will continue to stack the federal bench with conservative ideologues who serve lifetime appointments.
Some Democrats have warned that they will expand the Supreme Court and add their own justices if they win back the Senate and White House in November. Hirono said she too supports the idea of reforming the court, although she would also like to see rules for ethics and conflicts of interests.
Those discussions, she said, are premature, however, unless Democrats retake control in Washington.
“We don’t even get to have a serious discussion about court reform if we do not take back the Senate,” she said.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.