WASHINGTON — Gov. Brian Sandoval has agreed to be vetted by the White House to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, his office confirmed Wednesday.
But despite Sandoval’s current standing as a Republican leader, his nomination apparently would not be enough to prompt Senate Republican leaders to give him a confirmation hearing if he is President Barack Obama’s nominee.
“It’s the principle, not the person,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Grassley repeated his position that his committee would not hold a confirmation hearing on any nomination submitted in Obama’s final year in office.
“The American people deserve to have a voice in this debate, which is why the next president will be choosing the next Supreme Court nominee,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also held to that position.
“The Leader said the next president should nominate for this vacancy. Period,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said when asked about Sandoval.
Sandoval not commenting
Speculation that Nevada’s governor could be a Supreme Court nominee surfaced in political circles within days of Scalia’s death. On Saturday, while attending a National Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C., he told the Review-Journal that he would “cross that bridge if it ever comes.”
“I am not going to comment on the politics of the nomination,” he said. “I’m just going to be watching the process, just like everybody else.”
Following Wednesday’s Washington Post report saying that Obama is vetting him, Sandoval spokeswoman Mari St. Martin said that “neither Gov. Sandoval nor his staff has been contacted by or talked to the Obama administration regarding any potential vetting for the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
But a source close to the situation confirmed that the governor has agreed to be vetted, though he has not committed to accepting a nomination should it be offered. Sandoval might be keeping his options open, possibly because any Obama nominee would face a bruising confirmation process.
Sandoval met with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada on Monday, and the Supreme Court opening came up during the meeting.
“They talked about many things,” the source said, adding the court opening was not the purpose of the meeting.
The source also confirmed that Sandoval was one of several potential justices Reid has suggested to the White House.
Sandoval is a former federal district court judge and was recommended by Reid for the lifetime appointment. He left the bench in 2009 to run for governor, beating Reid’s son, Rory, for the job. He and Harry Reid are said to maintain a cordial relationship, despite political differences.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, but it is common to vet a number of candidates early in the selection process.
In addition to meeting Reid, a source said, the governor also has had phone conversations with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
Last week, Heller backed McConnell’s rejection of any Obama high court nominee. Heller, whose support for a Sandoval appointment would be crucial, was mum Wednesday.
“There will not be a follow-up statement until the vetting process is over,” said Neal Patel, Heller’s communications director and counsel.
If he chooses Sandoval, Obama would be going against both recent history and his own actions in appointing Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the court. Recent presidents have avoided nominees from the political arena and both of Obama’s picks were primarily known for their legal careers.
Obama could be hoping a Sandoval nomination would add to the pressure Reid and his fellow Democrats are hoping to build on Republicans.
Record could hurt Sandoval’s chances
Sandoval is Hispanic, a vital voting bloc in the upcoming presidential election. But, his record as governor could cut both ways for Democrats who might resist giving even a moderate Republican a lifelong seat on the court.
“It’s downright absurd that President Obama would risk his legacy by appointing another anti-labor Republican like Gov. Brian Sandoval to an already overwhelmingly pro-big business Supreme Court,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a progressive political action committee based in Vermont.
“Nominating Sandoval to the Supreme Court would not only prevent grassroots organizations like Democracy for America from supporting the president in this nomination fight, it could lead us to actively encouraging Senate Democrats to oppose his appointment.”
A Catholic, Sandoval has said he personally opposes abortion but he supports a woman’s right to choose. That position could be a nonstarter for many Republicans, especially those who view Scalia, a staunch opponent of legal abortion, as a conservative icon.
After the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, took effect, Sandoval also became the first Republican governor to support the law’s expansion of Medicaid.
After an appeals court threw the state’s legal basis on a same-sex marriage case in doubt, Sandoval withdrew the state’s opposition.
Never popular with Nevada conservatives, the governor ran in 2010 on a no-tax stance and in 2015 pushed through the largest tax increase in state history.
Review-Journal writer Sandra Chereb contributed to this report. Contact Jim Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @myers_dc