Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) suggested on Jan. 27 that he’s open to supporting a Supreme Court nominee who’s more liberal than him, a good sign for President Joe Biden, who will likely need Manchin’s vote to replace Justice Stephen Breyer.
Breyer was nominated to the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) by President Bill Clinton nearly three decades ago. On the court, Breyer has generally leaned to the left in his decisions, although he has struck out against some recent proposals among Democrats to pack the court.
In April 2021, Breyer warned against any such actions, arguing that it could erode public trust in the judicial system. More recently, Breyer said in his book, “The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics,” that advocates of adding new seats to the court should “think long and hard before embodying those changes in law.”
A slew of retirements and deaths during President Donald Trump’s term allowed Republicans to gain a substantial edge in the nation’s highest court, and many liberals have long been anxious to avoid the same happening to Breyer’s seat. Breyer, now an octogenarian, has been pressured for some time to step down and allow a younger liberal appointee to take his place.
On Jan. 26, Breyer acceded to the request and announced that he would step down at the end of the court’s term this summer.
Breyer’s announcement was immediately followed by speculation about who Biden might pick, especially given Democrats’ thin control of the Senate.
During the 2020 election season, Biden vowed to appoint a black woman to SCOTUS if elected. Following Breyer’s announcement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden was standing by the pledge; Biden announced on Jan. 27 that he would announce his pick by the end of February.
As has often been the case during the 117th Congress, all eyes are on Manchin, who has the power to make or break any appointment.
On Twitter, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) warned that Democrats would face a “major battle” from Republicans if Biden chose a “woke activist” as Breyer’s successor.
Manchin, however, indicated during an interview with West Virginia-based MetroNews that he’s open to a pick that’s further to the left than he is.
Even as Supreme Court nominee battles have grown more and more partisan, Manchin has remained moderate in his approach to these presidential picks. During Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation vote, Manchin was one of only three Democrats who supported him; later, Manchin was the only Democrat to vote for Brett Kavanaugh in one of the most heated and controversial confirmation battles in Senate history.
In view of that, Manchin was asked on MetroNews “Talkline” whether he expected he would support Biden’s SCOTUS pick.
Manchin refused to give a commitment, indicating he would make his decision after the nominee had gone through the normal confirmation process.
He then noted that he had supported two of President Donald Trump’s three SCOTUS nominees, who he said were all “competent and qualified.” He voted against the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett over concerns about the proximity of the vote to the election and felt that it was inappropriate to confirm a pick so close to the election.
“But the bottom line [is], you look at the qualifications—if the person’s competent enough to do the job,” he said. “I’m looking forward to whoever [Biden’s pick] is going to be, make sure the rule of law is the bible they go by … and make sure to make a good decision.”
Manchin was then asked how he would react to a more liberal pick with substantial philosophical differences.
“Would that be enough for you to cast a ‘no’ vote?” the host asked. “If they were qualified, would you still support the nomination?”
“It’s not too hard to get more liberal than me,” the self-described “conservative Democrat” said.
“[Philosophical differences] would not bother me,” Manchin said, adding that he was more interested in the nominee’s character and whether the pick was “sound in their thought process and … in their disbursement of justice and law.”
Manchin’s statement may come as a relief to Biden’s White House, which has been faced with defeat after defeat over the past year due in part to the West Virginia maverick.
Still, Manchin gave no commitment that he would vote for any nominee that Biden sends to the Senate, and potential objections by Manchin are sure to be at the forefront of the president’s mind as he goes down the roster of potential candidates.