A sudden vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court has thrust abortion even further into the spotlight for a deeply divided country facing a divisive election.
Southern Baptist leaders called for prayer for government authorities even as another forecast an “epic battle” for the high court and the White House.
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, died Sept. 18 of complications from metastatic cancer after 27 years on the high court. Nominated by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate in 1993, she received in her death high praise as a justice and colleague from both conservatives and liberals on the high court.
There was no question, however, Ginsburg was a member of the court’s liberal wing, and that status included the issue of abortion. She supported fully the abortion right enshrined by the Supreme Court in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Before Ginsburg’s death, the ideological breakdown on the high court was typically considered 5-4 in favor of conservatives, but that assessment has not always been reflected in its decisions, including on abortion. In June, for instance, the justices refused by a 5-4 margin to uphold a Louisiana law that required hospital admitting privileges for doctors who perform abortions.
Abortion has been at the center of more than three decades of clashes over Republican nominees to the Supreme Court. Despite GOP confirmation successes, no assurance exists there is a majority of justices to reverse Roe or that there will be if another conservative joins the court. Only one current justice, Clarence Thomas, has called in a written opinion for overturning Roe. Another conservative justice might result, however, in more favorable rulings on restrictions on abortion if not a reversal of Roe that would return the issue to the states.
With abortion rights and other matters in the balance, news of Ginsburg’s death soon transitioned into a debate on who should nominate her successor:
- On the evening she passed away, Republican Majority Leader Mitchel McConnell said the Senate would hold a floor vote if President Donald Trump offers a nominee.
- The president said in a tweet Sept. 19 that Republicans had an “obligation” to the people who elected them to fill the Supreme Court seat “without delay.” Trump later said he would nominate a woman to succeed Ginsburg.
- Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer both said the candidate elected to the White House in November should choose the next justice. On Sept. 20, Biden called on Republican senators not to vote on a Trump nominee offered during the election season. Schumer told Senate Democrats in a conference call Saturday“nothing is off the table for next year” if the GOP confirms a justice in the weeks ahead, The New York Times reported. He seemed to imply Democrats could seek such dramatic changes as increasing the number of justices on the high court if they gain control of the Senate in the election.
- Some leaders on both sides of the abortion issue weighed in. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, described it as “a turning point for the nation in the fight to protect its most vulnerable, the unborn.” She said pro-life Americans are confident Trump and pro-life senators “will move swiftly to fill this vacancy.” Alexis McGill Johnson – president of Planned Parenthood, the country’s leading abortion provider – tweeted, “Her seat MUST remain open past Inauguration.”
Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee, described the current moment as critical because of its long-term implications.
“Southern Baptists are very concerned about the direction of our nation,” Floyd said Monday. “Through the years, we have stood strongly in defense of the sanctity and dignity of human life, religious liberty and marriage as defined by Holy Scripture. This is why there is so much at stake in the current situation we face.
“Presidents come and go, but the appointments they make can impact generations. This is why we must pray for President Trump and everyone who will make this decision.”
On Sunday, Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called for prayer for the late justice’s family and for the country, echoing comments he had made on the evening of Ginsburg’s death.
“Supreme Court nominations are highly contentious moments in normal times,” Moore said. “We have already been praying for our country in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of societal distress, and in the midst of economic uncertainty. So we should now add to that praying for wisdom for our leaders in this moment, as well.”
On Sept. 18, he acknowledged major disagreements with Ginsburg on such contentious issues as abortion and religious liberty.
“The death of Justice [Antonin] Scalia, a titan of the right, [in 2016] and now the death of Justice Ginsburg, a titan of the left, I think that really signifies an age of transition, a time of uncertainty and a time for all of us to pray for our country, for our world and to stand faithful for Christ.”
The friendship between Ginsburg and Scalia despite their ideological differences has been well documented. “Let us look to their example of friendship even as they had deep policy disagreements as a model for our country moving forward,” Moore said Sunday.
Meanwhile, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a special edition of “The Briefing” podcast Sept. 18, “There is no avoiding the reality that this is going to be an epic battle for the future of the Supreme Court in the middle of an epic battle for the United States presidency. The battle for the White House and the battle for the Supreme Court have never in our nation’s history been so conjoined and so undeniable, so upfront and so central.”
McConnell’s willingness to hold a vote on a Supreme Court nominee so near a presidential election has brought charges of inconsistency. In 2016, the Senate majority leader refused to consider the confirmation of federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland when he was nominated during President Obama’s final year in office. McConnell defended his actions in a statement Friday, saying that no Senate since the 1880s had confirmed the nominee of a president from the opposing party during a presidential election year.
If a confirmation vote is not held before the Nov. 3 election, McConnell still might call for such action afterward, even if Trump were to lose.
Two Republicans – Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – have said since Ginsburg’s death they do not support a confirmation vote on a nominee at this time.
Federal appeals court judges Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa are front-runners for the nomination to succeed Ginsburg, Bloomberg News reported Sunday. Trump nominated both to their current posts, Barrett to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Lagoa to the 11th Circuit Court.
Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri reiterated in a tweet Saturday his previous commitment to vote only for high court nominees “who understand and acknowledge that Roe was wrongly decided.” He urged other Republicans to do the same.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)