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Srinivasan will be better off being ignored for US SC justice post

The death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia has created a vacancy in the institution and one of the frontrunners for that post is 48-year-old appeals court judge Indian-American Srikanth Srinivasan. But he will probably be better off being ignored for that post during this very partisan election year writes Anirudh Bhattacharyya.

columns Updated: Feb 20, 2016 00:57 IST
Antonin Scalia,US Supreme Court,Srikanth Srinivasan
Among the nominee names that have been noted is 48-year-old appeals court judge Indian-American Srikanth Srinivasan. He’s a likely candidate, but the very reasons that qualify him could also make him unlikely.(Handout via Reuters)

In this year of American angst, the ante just got upped. Even as Democrats and Republicans are primarying their way to the presidential polls in November, the scales of justice are hanging in the balance. The death of Supreme Court (SC) justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative appointed by former President Ronald Reagan, has created a vacancy in an institution that is truly the US’ ubergovernment, when it comes to delivering the final verdict on social policy.

That leaves plenty of room for an appointment with speculation. Among the nominee names that have been noted is 48-year-old appeals court judge Indian-American Srikanth Srinivasan. He’s a likely candidate, but the very reasons that qualify him could also make him unlikely. The vast majority of SC judges have obviously been Christian, though there have been eight Jewish justices, including three on the current court. None has been of any other religious affiliation. Srinivasan, who took his oath on the Bhagvad Gita in 2013, will alter that. Forget about Indian-American, he’ll become the first Asian-origin judge on the SCOTUS, as Americans abbreviate their apex court. With issues relating to the majority religion and race always on the SCOTUS docket, he’s not from the sort of minority that could get affirmative action from partisan politicians.

But the Chandigarh-born Srinivasan’s truly disabling drawback is that his political affiliation is unknown. He was first appointed to the US Solicitor General’s office by George W Bush; Barack Obama nominated him to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Obama described him as a “trailblazer”, while Republican Senator Ted Cruz maintains a friendship that started when they were law clerks.

Obama will almost certainly nominate the next member of the Supremes, even if that person’s chances of getting confirmed by a Republican-majority Senate could be roughly equivalent to that of an outbreak of dignified behaviour from Kanye West.

Before anyone can chant bipartisan, take a gander at the political landscape. Srinivasan studied human biology in his undergraduate programme at Stanford University, but it’s the psychology of the body politic that will determine his future. America has a political ecology where donkeys and elephants run rampant and an Independent is an endangered animal. Yes, Gallup’s January survey of party affiliation shows a massive 44% of voters are Independents. But once leaners are discounted, that number slumps to just over 10%. That’s what makes Michael Bloomberg’s flirtation with a presidential run a self-love affair that will achieve little other than allowing the Clintons, with a net worth of over $100 million, to plead poverty.

In America, they have a thing for picket fences, but sitting on them is not just precarious but also particularly painful. Sri Sri and the art of living together may have little space in this. Srinivasan, as a friend of his once remarked, is neither a “crazy liberal” nor a “crazy conservative.” That’s already two strikes against him. In fact, it may actually help his cause for a future SC nomination to be ignored during the 2016 cycle, a presidential election year when opposing camps can’t even agree over pizza toppings.

Before Srinivasan’s 2013 confirmation, by a landslide 97-0 vote in the Senate, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin wrote in the New Yorker: “...Which is why it looks very much like this hearing isn’t just a test for Srinivasan - it’s a dress rehearsal.” But this may not be the time that suits him. Right now, even his pal Cruz will nix his name. In 2017, that seat on the bench may still be available, whereas anyone nominated now will end up getting singed by the heat from fire-breathing campaigns.

This is the political system that prevails. Those that would be considered political affronts become frontrunners. Since one poor joke deserves another, here’s one for this situation:

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump walk into a bar. “One of us could be the next President of America,” they chorus. The bartender looks at them and mutters, “I need a drink.”

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Feb 19, 2016 22:06 IST