Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinLawmakers in both parties to launch new push on Violence Against Women Act Domestic travel vaccine mandate back in spotlight Biden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid MORE of California will take over as the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee next year, giving her a high-profile role in the vetting of President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump lawyers to Supreme Court: Jan. 6 committee 'will not be harmed by delay' Two House Democrats announce they won't seek reelection DiCaprio on climate change: 'Vote for people that are sane' MORE’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
The court has had a vacancy since February, when the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died. The court is now split 4-4 between liberal and conservative justices.
Feinstein said in a statement Wednesday that she will pay “close attention” to Trump’s nominees after Republicans blocked President Obama’s pick, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland.
“After the unprecedented and disrespectful treatment of Merrick Garland — a moderate judge who should have been quickly confirmed — the committee will pay very close attention to proposed nominees to ensure the fundamental constitutional rights of Americans are protected,” she said in a statement.
She will be the first woman and senator from California to serve as ranking member of the committee.
Feinstein could be the top Democrat on Judiciary during as many as three Supreme Court confirmation hearings over the course of Trump’s term, court watchers say.
Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, aged 68, and center-right Justice Anthony Kennedy, aged 80, are candidates for retirement. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83 years old and battled cancer a few years ago.
Trump has said he will nominate justices who favor restricting abortion rights and if he appoints several in that mold, the landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade, which established women’s abortion rights, could be overturned.
The Judiciary Committee will also hold hearings on Trump’s pick to serve as attorney general.
The new position gives Feinstein, an outspoken advocate of gun control, more influence over that issue. Legislation to expand background checks for firearm purchases falls under the Judiciary panel’s jurisdiction.
Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyFormer US attorney considering Senate run in Vermont as Republican The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sen. Kaine, drivers stranded in I-95 backup Senate delays vote as DC hit by snowstorm MORE of Vermont, who served as chairman and the ranking Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee during President Obama’s administration, has decided to take the senior Democratic slot on the Appropriations Committee.
Feinstein said it was “an honor and a privilege to follow in the footsteps of Sen. Leahy.”