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Latino Legal Experts Say Supreme Court Vacancy Must Be Filled

In a press call today, Latino legal experts called on the Senate to commit to a hearing and a vote for a Supreme Court nominee to fill the vacancy left by deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. Representatives from Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary, a nonpartisan network of elected officials and civil rights, academic, and political leaders, and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of the nation’s preeminent Latino advocacy organizations, emphasized what they termed the unprecedented obstruction by Senate Judiciary Committee members as well as the need for a full Supreme Court bench.

These Latino voices joined a growing chorus of calls for the Republican-controlled Senate not to block President Obama’s nominee for the high court.

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“There is no excuse on the part of the U.S. Senate to refuse to do its constitutional duty to provide advice and consent (on nominations),” said Thomas A. Saenz, President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). “Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution states that quite clearly, and there are no exceptions within that language.”

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Saenz pointed out that there are no exceptions for the length for the time a president has been in office, or any requirement that a new justice should reflect the ideology of their predecessor. “There is nothing to the argument that Scalia must be replaced with a conservative,” he said. “Throughout history we have seen the Court shift from conservative to progressive and back to conservative again.”

"You just don’t get to say that this one institution will not go forward with its work,” said legal scholar Maria Blanco about the Senate's refusal to consider any of Obama's Supreme Court nominees.

“The Latino community is united in believing that when President Barack Obama was elected, he was elected to fulfill duties for his entire four-year term,” Saenz stated. “We therefore expect the Senate to do its duty and provide advice and consent for a Supreme Court nominee.”

“The Supreme Court is not just a legal institution, it is one of the basic institutions of the U.S. like Congress, or the Executive Branch,” said Maria Blanco of the University of California Davis School of Law. “To basically say that this institution will stop, to put the brakes on it, is just unacceptable. You just don’t get to say that this one institution will not go forward with its work.” Blanco called it “particularly disturbing” to see the Court “held hostage to political positions.”

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“It is an irresponsible act, much like shutting down the government, to shut down the Supreme Court,” Blanco said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed not to hold hearings for any potential replacement for Justice Scalia, while Texas Senator John Cornyn has said that any potential nominee would be treated like “a piñata.”

Juan Cartagena, president of the civil rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF, stressed the importance of the judiciary branch in protecting the civil rights of Latinos. “Oftentimes the political system can fail to represent the best interests of Latinos, or make it harder for Latinos to share equally in their rights, duties, and responsibilities as citizens of the U.S.,” he said. “Many times this takes the form of anti-immigrant laws or referendums.” Cartagena cited California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in 2006, and Texas’ attempt to deny public education to undocumented immigrants as examples of situations that warranted judicial intervention.

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Cartagena noted that decisions about which Supreme Court cases to accept next term will be made this summer and fall – which could determine which cases are upheld or reversed. ”For many Latinos, the Supreme Court is a last resort and we need to make sure it is operating fully, and with the full integrity of the judicial process.”

Robert Maldonado, National President of the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), said, “The Supreme Court vacancy must be filled, and must be filled immediately.” He added that, “There are many qualified Latinos to fill the vacancy.”

The HNBA, along with other national diverse bar associations, recently sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) urging the Senate to hold a fair hearing and timely vote on any Supreme Court nominee.

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The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda wrote a similar letter to Senate Republicans last week, which read, in part, “The refusal to hold a hearing or meet with a nominee to the Supreme Court is a clear dereliction of duty, and inconsistent with normal order of the Senate. The politicization of the current vacancy and the President’s duty to nominate a Supreme Court justice violates the very principles of order and rule of law that uphold our Constitution and values as a nation.”

President Obama is expected to make his announcement on a Supreme Court nominee as soon as this week. According to press reports, his short list has narrowed to three appellate judges, Sri Srinivasan, Paul Watford and Merrick Garland. Two potential Latino nominees, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Circuit Court Judge Adalberto Jordan, have both taken themselves out of the running.

A recent CNN/ORC poll found that a majority of Americans (58 percent) want Obama to nominate a replacement for Justice Scalia, and 66 percent believe that his nominee should get a Senate hearing.

Thomas Saenz of MALDEF also said that his organization would not object if Obama did not nominate a Latino to the Court. “What is most important to us is that the next justice is familiar with the Latino community and its concerns, and that (he or she)… is prepared to promote civil rights.”

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