Students were starstruck Wednesday afternoon as the Vice President Joe Biden paid a visit to campus to deliver remarks about the ongoing Supreme Court confirmation battle. The Sports and Fitness Center was unrecognizable, transformed into a speaking stage with seats and standing room for hundreds and Secret Service agents performing security checks.
While Biden did not speak until 12:30, his influence was felt well before his arrival. The Tower Green was closed off by caution tape and posted, uniformed officers, and access to the Hotung building was limited. These closures remained well into the afternoon.
However, these access restrictions were nothing in comparison to the excitement among students. Georgetown Law is no stranger to big-name speakers; the late Justice Scalia spoke to 1Ls last Fall, and Justice Alito visited campus earlier this semester. As the students chatted in anticipation of the Vice President’s arrival, they would collectively quiet down when the music playing through speakers stopped, but laugh and continue when the music resumed.
The Vice President was introduced by Georgetown Law Professor Victoria Nourse, who served as an advisor for then-Senator Biden during his time chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee, and more recently as counsel to the Vice President before returning to faculty. Her remarks cited Biden’s ability to forge consensus, referring specifically to his work on passing both the Brady Bill and the Violence Against Women Act.
Biden himself was greeted with an enthusiastic applause from students and faculty as he entered. His remarks, which lasted just short of an hour, were focused entirely on the ongoing battle surrounding the confirmation of D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland as President Obama’s third Supreme Court Nominee. Republican Senate leadership refuses to call a confirmation vote, as they believe voters should have a say in the composition of the Supreme Court through the Presidential election in November.
The remarks were situated in the context of a divided government and a divided Washington. Leaning on his thirty-six years served in the Senate, and seven years as Vice President, he believed that politics in Washington were more divided than ever, referring to Congress as dysfunctional. He cited the unprecedented nature of this confirmation holdup, saying he had never seen anything like it during his time on the Judiciary Committee and that it was an abdication of the Senate’s Cconstitutional duty . Sharing his experiences travelling abroad on behalf of the President, Biden added “You know that the world looks at this city right now as dysfunctional, and that’s a problem.”
He also took the time to refute the notion of the so-called “Biden Rule,” invoked by Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to support his opposition to Judge Garland’s nomination. “There is only one rule I ever followed in the Judiciary Committee. That was the Constitution’s clear rule of advice and consent,” he said. Biden assured that his words, which have been construed as supporting the blocking of judicial nominations during election years, were being taken out of context. Instead, he asserted that his position was merely in response to the short time between the death of Justice Marshall and the nomination of Justice Thomas – he did not believe the Senate was given enough time to adequately give its advice and consent.
He also lambasted the proposal of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), current chairman of the Judiciary Committee that the Court need not have a full complement of nine Justices. Biden strongly disagreed, raising concerns that an eight-Justice court would be unable to make decisions on some of the most controversial legal issues facing America, renderingAmericans unsure and leaving the Court just as dysfunctional as Congress. He cautioned that the lack of an effective Supreme Court would yield inconsistent outcomes for residents of different states as circuit splits would be left unresolved, hindering the concept of “United” States. If the Republican leadership gets their way, Biden said, there will be a vacancy on the Court for over 400 days, which could precipitate a “genuine Constiutional crisis.” He even quoted the late Justice Scalia warning of the dangers of an eight-justice Court.
The Vice President was unafraid to introduce some humor into the event. When his climactic didactic was interrupted, he blamed the failure of government on the offending cell phone. Check out Biden’s zinger in the video below, courtesy of 3L Phil Druss.