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Estrada, Scalia and the US Senate

Published: 
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
John Estrada

Orin Gordon

​Two developments of note occurred in the US last week, one day apart. The US senate on Thursday finally confirmed President Obama’s nominee, Trinidad born John Estrada, 60, as US Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago after frustratingly holding up his nomination and re-nomination for 3 years. And conservative US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead in his room, the Presidential Suite, at a ranch resort in Texas. He was 79.

We’ll get to John Estrada shortly. First, let’s consider how the two things are linked. News of Scalia’s death had barely broken when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it plain that the senate was not going to allow Barack Obama to seat a replacement on the Supreme Court in this last year in office.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice”, said McConnell, evidently forgetting that they were in good voice last time they voted in 2012. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Four of the 6 remaining contenders for the Republican nomination for the elections in November immediately supported that position, one of them, Florida senator Marco Rubio, citing 80 years of precedent, which supposedly holds that a president in the last year of two statutory terms – and therefore no longer politically accountable – would not make a decision as consequential as an appointment to lifetime judicial tenure.

It’s not the intention here to get into the weeds of the US constitutional history. Let’s say simply that there’s nothing in the revered document that prevents Obama from nominating, or eventually sitting, a Supreme Court justice in his final year. Nothing, that is, except Republicans’ numerical control of the senate, or the fact that it’s Scalia’s heir we’re talking about. Scalia was a rock star to the American right. A reliable right-wing vote on the hot-button political issues, even if it meant reversing his earlier legal positions, as in the new healthcare law known as Obamacare.

The animating factor is not precedent – it’s that Obama has a rare opportunity to effect a generational shift in the court, which at the moment tilts 5 -4 in favour of conservatives, and worse, to do so by inserting a Progressive jurist in place of THE conservative legal icon. It’s sacrilege – like Kanye West replacing Machel as the King of Soca.

The point is if Rubio, McConnell and Co want to slow walk or even vote down an Obama nominee, the stringing out of a far less important nomination such as Estrada’s shows that they can, and they probably will. Prediction. President Clinton the Second will be seating Scalia’s replacement after her inauguration in January 2017, and the judicial bench will operate one Justice short for more than a year.

Back to John Estrada. You’ll not find a more suitable candidate for US ambassador to this country. Trini boy from Laventille, left at 12, became a US citizen, and had a distinguished career in one of America’s most respected institutions, its Marine Corps. US senators have the power to place holds on nominations, and it’s not uncommon for a nominee to be approved by the senate without a single opposing vote, after a hold is lifted. Some holds, such as nominees for Ambassador to Mexico, were explained. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, had doubts about a nominee’s ties with Castro’s Cuba, for example.

With Estrada, it was never that clear why he didn’t sail through the process in 2013 when nominated, or 2014 when re-nominated. Or maybe it was clear. He endorsed candidate Obama in 2008, before the then senator had won his first term. In a military establishment that is close-knit and politically conservative, Estrada made enemies by preferring Obama over war hero John McCain. It looks for all the world like 3 years of political payback. No other explanation for why he wasn’t a shoo-in from Minute One makes sense.

It has been a long road, and Estrada, in a sense, is finally coming home. His unnecessarily long journey is proof that we should put nothing past the deeply, unhealthily gridlocked US congress. Thirteen per cent of people polled approve of the job congress is doing. Sounds high to me.

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