WASHINGTON — Four years ago, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina was among 11 Republicans on the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee who wrote a letter explaining why they would not be holding hearings on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
There were still eight months until Election Day in 2016 when they sent that letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Tillis and the others framed their refusal to consider President Barack Obama’s choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia as one “based on constitutional principle, and born of a necessity to protect the will of the American people.”
Now, with just weeks to go before a presidential election, Tillis is part of a judiciary panel that will consider and vote at record-setting speed on President Donald Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the nation’s highest court.
Expect Tillis — who is in a tight race for re-election to a second term — to be among those in the “aye” column. He swiftly aligned with Trump and other Senate Republicans as they coalesced around filling the court vacancy and around Barrett, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
Tillis was at the White House when her nomination was announced. He has praised the 48-year-old nominee as “a strong conservative choice who would uphold the Constitution, and interpret the law as written.”
“Judge Barrett is exactly the kind of fair-minded and impartial justice North Carolinians expect and deserve to have on the Supreme Court,” Tillis said Wednesday afternoon after meeting with her in his Capitol Hill office, adding: “I look forward to getting her confirmed.”
2016 and 2020
In August 2016, Tillis wrote an op-ed in USA Today, defending the Senate’s decision not to hold hearings on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the bench. “While the president is given the authority to nominate a potential justice, our Founding Fathers gave the Senate advise and consent authority. The Senate has several options on how to act — including withholding consideration of a nomination altogether,” Tillis wrote.
But four years later, Tillis is arguing that the circumstances surrounding the current court battle and the one in 2016 aren’t the same. He and other GOP lawmakers have sought to differentiate between the current political alignment of a Republican White House and Senate, as opposed to the earlier vacancy, which occurred under a Democratic president and Republican Senate.
Tillis supported Trump’s previous two high court nominees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and signaled quickly that he would do so for the president’s third Supreme Court pick. A day after Ginsburg’s death, Tillis spoke ahead of Trump at a rally in Fayetteville, expressing his condolences to her family and then switching to what should happen next.
“The president has the responsibility and the authority to nominate a justice,” Tillis told the crowd, adding that he had reviewed the list of hypothetical nominees that Trump previously had released. “He’s going to nominate one of those justices, and I’m going to vote for their confirmation.”
Unlike four years ago, Tillis himself is on the ballot alongside Trump, and in his own difficult re-election race. Recent polls show his Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, within the margin of error or leading in recent polls.
Like other Democratic legislators and candidates, Cunningham has called for the court vacancy to be filled by the next president, and has attacked Tillis as hypocritical in his position. Tillis “trusted and wanted to hear from the American people in 2016,” Cunningham said during a recent televised debate between the two candidates. “He doesn’t today.”
Hearings kick off Oct. 12
The Tillis campaign hasn’t shied away from talking about the Supreme Court. He’s criticized Democrats who have declined to meet with Barrett, and his team launched a website castigating Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as planning to pack the court with left-leaning justices.
It’s not yet clear what role the court battle will play in the Senate race. Tillis’s role on the judiciary panel, which is scheduled to begin confirmation hearings on Oct. 12, puts him at the center of the nationalized issue, said Andrew Taylor, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University.
For Tillis, embracing Trump’s pick for the court is likely the safest position in a state where he’s run behind the president in public polls, Taylor said
“Tillis is in a position where he can’t really help himself that much,” Taylor said. “He has to have the president help him.”
At that Fayetteville rally last month, Trump singled out Tillis as he talked about the authority granted to him in the Constitution to nominate a new associate justice.
“What do you think, Thom? Thom Tillis, I don’t think it can be any more clear,” Trump said, as the audience shouted: “Fill that seat.”
“This could only happen in North Carolina,” Trump added with a grin.
Laura Olson covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes NC Policy Watch. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.