Grassley at center of court storm

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyTop Dem Senate hopefuls to skip convention Election to shape Supreme Court Why one senator sees Gingrich as Trump's best VP choice MORE’s (R-Iowa) reputation is being tested by the battle over President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.

Grassley, chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee, prides himself on being an advocate of transparency and good government. But those credentials are being called into question in the intense debate over replacing the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

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The Iowa Republican won’t commit to scheduling hearings on Obama’s expected nominee, drawing criticism from Democrats and puzzled reactions from some longtime observers of his career.

“He’s always been a champion of transparency. I’m just thinking of all the whistleblower legislation and issues that he’s been involved in,” said David Yepsen, who covered Grassley as chief political reporter during a three-decade career at The Des Moines Register.

“When Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellProgressive group changes tone on Kaine Trump hits Kaine on TPP: He supports a 'job killer' Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE said what he said right out of the box, I was kind of surprised. I said, ‘Boy, I wonder if he talked to Chuck Grassley about that.’ It struck me as the kind of thing Grassley would not do if he had any say in the matter,” Yepsen said.

McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, moved immediately after Scalia’s death to quash the prospect of the Senate acting this year to confirm any Supreme Court nominee from Obama. 

“This vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,” McConnell said in a statement released early Saturday evening, hours after Scalia was pronounced dead. 

Grassley issued a statement an hour later concurring. “It only makes sense that we defer to the American people who will elect a new president to select the next Supreme Court Justice.”

The editorial board of the Register ripped Grassley for the statement, saying the senator missed an opportunity “to be less of a politician and more of a statesman.” 

“He could have made it clear that he favors a Senate vote on the matter — a move that still would enable Republicans to accept or reject the eventual nominee based on merit — but he chose instead to disregard his constitutional duty by rejecting a nominee who hasn’t even been named,” the paper wrote. 

Grassley has since backed off his statement under growing pressure from Democrats, outside groups, legal observers and even fellow Republicans.  

On Tuesday Grassley said he would wait to see whom Obama nominated before making a decision on hearings, urging colleagues and reporters to “take it a step at a time.”

A spokeswoman for Grassley declined to comment.

Grassley throughout his career has pushed for an array of bills to increase government transparency, such as legislation to put cameras in the federal courts, something he believes would demystify their workings like C-SPAN has done for Congress. 

“As a longtime crusader for more transparency, I've worked to spread sunshine through the halls of the federal government,” Grassley wrote in an op-ed last year for the National Law Journal that advocated for televised court proceedings.

“Transparency, and the accountability that comes with it, renews credibility in our institutions of government and strengthens our free and open society,” he argued in the piece.  

Some legal experts say that holding hearings on Obama’s nominee would be in the best interests of transparency by helping voters better understand what’s at stake in this year’s presidential election.

“If he really is faithful to his claimed commitment to transparency and civic engagement, the decision not to have hearings strikes me as extraordinarily inconsistent with these stated commitments,” said Douglas Berman, a law professor at the Moritz College of Law at the Ohio State University. 

Berman said senators should feel free to vote their conscience but that there’s no valid argument for not giving Obama’s nominee a fair review and floor consideration. 

“To really have a judgment about this nominee is to have hearings and have senators express their concerns and their interests,” he added.

In 1987, Democrats who controlled the Senate gave Robert Bork, former President Ronald Reagan’s controversial nominee, an up-or-down vote on the floor even after the Judiciary Committee voted 9-5 to reject his nomination.

Bork’s nomination was defeated by the Senate in a 42-58 vote; his nomination was not filibustered.

Berman said if Grassley refuses to hold hearings on Obama’s nominee, “it suggests he wants transparency when it serves whatever his interests are and he’s not committed to transparency when it doesn’t serve whatever his interests are.” 

The pressure on Grassley mounted Wednesday when centrist Republican Sen. Dean HellerDean HellerSenators offer bill removing hurdles to offering stock options Six senators call on housing regulator to let Congress finish housing finance reform Majority of GOP senators to attend Trump convention MORE (Nev.) broke with GOP colleagues who have called on the Senate not to take any action on advancing Obama’s nominee.

Heller pledged an open mind, arguing, “Nevadans should have a voice in the process.”

“That’s why I encourage the President to use this opportunity to put the will of the people ahead of advancing a liberal agenda on the nation’s highest court,” he said in a statement. “But should he decide to nominate someone to the Supreme Court, who knows, maybe it’ll be a Nevadan.” 

Kyle Barry, director of justice programs at the Alliance for Justice, a liberal-leaning group that follows the high court closely, said Grassley’s legacy as a good-government reformer would hinge on his decision. 

He said not holding hearings “would put a major dent in his claim to be a champion of transparency.”

He said confirmation hearings are open to the public and give people a chance to closely review a nominee’s record while also providing the nominee an opportunity to respond to criticism.