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Rounds, Ahlers spar over SCOTUS vacancy as Senate election nears

Joe Sneve - Sioux Falls Argus Leader

Sept. 26, 2020

The Democratic candidate for the South Dakota Senate seat up for grabs in November is accusing incumbent Sen. Mike Rounds this week of applying double standards to presidential nominations to the Supreme Court. But the first-term Republican senator said this week he was willing to consider a 2016 nomination to the high court by President Barack Obama, just as he is following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Rounds joined his fellow Republicans in the Senate in March of 2016 in voicing opposition to formal consideration of appointing Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Garland was nominated by President Barrack Obama, serving his final year in office at the time. "We also owe it to the American people to make certain their voice is heard in this election," Rounds said at the time.

Rounds, though, told the Argus Leader Friday morning that the decision not to consider Garland's nomination was at the directive of party leadership, not his. He says he met with Garland after Obama made the nomination, joking that he took some heat for it from some of his colleagues.

"You elect your leadership at the beginning of the term, and the Senate Majority Leader does make the call," he said. Like other Republicans have said since the vacancy opened, Rounds noted it's common for judicial appointments to be made during an election year when the Senate and the executive branch are controlled by the same party. That's the case this year, but with the SCOTUS vacancy becoming a late-election season topic, it's unclear if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has enough votes to confirm a Trump nominee. Rounds is among 23 Republican senators facing re-election in November. While his seat isn't considered to be as vulnerable as others, his support of confirmation hearings has drawn him criticism from his political adversaries back home, including Dan Ahlers, the Dell Rapids Democrat challenging him for his seat.

Ahlers this week accused Rounds of playing politics with the Supreme Court by pushing through a Trump nominee with less than two months to go before an election when in 2016 he said the American people would get a voice in filling that vacancy after the election. "When (former Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia passed away, there were more than eight months to the election, now we're six weeks away," Ahlers said. “(Rounds) doesn’t seem to be as concerned with the opinion of the American people now.”

Ahlers and Democrats have said the Republcans desire to consider a Trump nominee before the election is an attempt to load the court with ideologically conservative judges.

That's not an accusation Rounds is running from, though. Having judges on the high court who understand the virtues of Second Amendment rights, respect human life and don't legislate from the bench is important to him and most South Dakotans, he said.

Rounds said what shouldn't sit well with South Dakotans is calls by some Democrats and political activists to add seats to the court when Republicans lose the majority in the Senate, and abolish the filibuster. At that point, there would be nothing stopping Senate Democrats from pushing through a stated desire to make Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. states nor a Supreme Court that would challenge that, he said. "That does not bode well for South Dakota nor for the upper Midwest,” Rounds said. “You can’t add four more Democrat senators and have a fair voice in Washington for the middle part of our country.” Ahlers disavowed calls for court stacking by Democrats, saying that tit-for-tat political squabbling isn't productive or only adds to political dysfunction in the federal government.


"Whatever happens we will have to live with," he said. "But I don’t think that retribution is the way to go. You don’t gain ground by doing that, you contribute to the problem, though, and that’s part of what’s wrong with Washington right now."

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