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Sen. Ron Johnson: 'Let The American People Decide' Direction Of Supreme Court

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Senate Republicans have vowed to block whoever's nominated by President Obama to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said flatly, the vacancy should not be filled until there's a new president. This has become a political campaign issue, and some politicians are in an especially interesting spot. There are several first-term Republican senators who are seeking reelection in what are typically Democratic states. Joining us is one of them - Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Welcome to the program, Senator.

RON JOHNSON: Hello, Robert. How are you doing?

SIEGEL: Shortly after Justice Scalia's death, you issued a statement in which you basically said that his seat should not be filled until after President Obama leaves office and we have a new president. Is that still your position?

JOHNSON: Well, what I said is that we're in a pretty unique moment in time here in history. We've - you know, obviously the composition of the court - liberal versus conservative - is really in the balance, and we're only eight months before an election where the American people are going to decide the direction of the country. Why not let the American people also decide the direction of the Supreme Court?

SIEGEL: But you could say that two years into the term of any president, saying, you know, it's the end of his or her first term and the American people haven't spoken yet; let's wait until the election. Where does this come from, this idea that you have to wait for an election before naming a Supreme Court nominee?

JOHNSON: I realize the voters elected President Obama in 2012, but they also, in 2014, elected enough Republican senators to gain a majority in the Senate so we control the confirmation process. And these are two supposedly coequal branches of government involved in this filling of a Supreme Court vacancy. So President Obama nominates. The Senate advises and consents. And I don't know how the process plays out. I'm not in control of it, but you know, the consent phase would be, you know, whether we decide to hold hearings, to not hold hearings, whether we have a vote, whether we vote up or down. But not acting is also acting. It's also fulfilling that consent portion of our advise-and-consent.

SIEGEL: Democrats saw Senator McConnell's statement as denying even the pretense of considering an Obama nominee to the Court. Is what you're saying different only in that what you're offering is pretense because you're saying, essentially, you'd defeat any Obama nominee because it's an Obama nominee?

JOHNSON: Well, I think justice Scalia is really the gold standard of what a justice should be. Somebody, regardless of how he feels on an issue, is going to look at the text of the Constitution, look at the text of the law and make his judgment. We don't have enough justices like him, so if President Obama were to actually nominate a justice that had that type of judicial philosophy, that kind of modesty, that kind of restraint, you know, we could confirm him. But I really seriously doubt President Obama will do that.

SIEGEL: But you're holding up a standard - I'm thinking back to when Justice Thurgood Marshall, one of the most liberal justices in the court's history, retired and was replaced by Clarence Thomas, one of the most conservative justices in the court's history. Where is it written that justices have to be succeeded by people who are like them in terms of their judicial thinking?

JOHNSON: It's not written. What's written is that the president has the constitutional authority and duty to nominate someone, and senators have the constitutional duty to advise and consent. Let the American people decide rather than lame-duck president and, quite honestly, possibly a lame-duck Republican Senate.

SIEGEL: You are running for reelection in Wisconsin. Do you run a risk of appearing to swing voters as being part of a party that's obstructionist at this point? Is that a possible negative that you face in your reelection race?

JOHNSON: One of the promises I made when I ran was, I'll never vote with my reelection in mind. So you know, I have certain principles, and one of my principles is that judges ought to stick to and adhere to the text of the Constitution and the law irrespective of the outcome. And that's the kind of justice Scalia would be, and that's the kind of justice that I would vote to confirm. I wouldn't vote to confirm somebody that I don't believe will have that kind of judicial integrity.

SIEGEL: U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin on the road as part of your reelection effort, I guess, in Wisconsin, thanks for talking with us.

JOHNSON: Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.