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Supreme Court confirmations have become a political minefield. Few know that better than Joe Biden

By Melanie Mason, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The start of the confirmation hearings to put Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court was nowhere to be found on The New York Times' front page. Joe Biden couldn't have been more thrilled.

"My heart sang," said Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He declared the muted media coverage - an indication of the dearth of controversy surrounding the liberal jurist - was the "most wonderful thing that had happened" since he became head of the powerful panel.

He was right to predict smooth sailing; Ginsburg ultimately won the approval of 96 senators, and Biden, in helping shepherd her confirmation, had made yet another imprint on the nation's courts.

The 1993 ascent of the second woman to the Supreme Court was hardly the only impact Biden made on the courts, though not all came so smoothly. As his tongue-in-cheek remark implied, his work on confirming judges was marked just as much by rancorous controversy as bipartisan comity.

His decadeslong tenure on the Senate Judiciary Committee yielded some of the most significant liberal victories of his career and missteps that continue to dog him as the Democratic presidential nominee. In all, Biden has been involved with at least 15 Supreme Court nominations during his tenure as senator and vice president. If elected, he would enter the Oval Office with more experience in confirming judges than any president in the modern era.

The judiciary has leapfrogged to the forefront of the 2020 race with Ginsburg's death Friday. For most of the campaign, Biden had been largely quiet on the matter of judges, even as his rival, President Donald Trump, touts his success in judicial confirmations, including two Supreme Court justices. While Trump has put out a list of potential court nominees, Biden's public commitments have focused less on names and more on diversity and broad liberal principles.

 

"As president, he will nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, and appoint judges who share his commitment to the rule of law, uphold individual civil rights and civil liberties, and respect foundational precedents like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade," said Jamal Brown, national spokesman for the Biden campaign.

The campaign declined to make Biden available for an interview. But a review of his vast experience, including 17 years as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, as well as interviews with nearly two dozen former colleagues, ex-staffers and outside legal experts offer hints to how he would approach judicial nominations in the White House.

"The battle about to engulf the country is an ongoing war to control the courts," said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor who has worked extensively with the Senate Judiciary committee. "Joe Biden is as steeped in that and understands that as well as anyone."

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