DECATUR — Central Illinois conservatives and anti-abortion advocates are turning a hopeful eye on a new U.S. Supreme Court vacancy. The Senate battle over President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy got off to a fiery start Thursday — even before the president made his choice.
“Anything that brings us closer to overturning Roe v. Wade is welcome,” said Megan Rhoades of Argenta, who thinks the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion should be struck down.
Rhoades said she had an abortion 13 years ago, but has regretted that decision. Today, she's thrilled that Trump would have the opportunity to appoint a more conservative justice who likely would oppose abortion.
“Women deserve better," she said. "Children deserve better.”
Macon County GOP Chairman Bruce Pillsbury said he looked forward to Trump appointing a “fairly conservative” justice.
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“We appreciated Justice Kennedy. I think most of the justices are pretty fair about things,” he said. “Sometimes some of their opinions ... I think are more political than not, but I think the president will pick a good choice.”
Macon County Democratic Chairman Jim Underwood didn’t return two messages seeking comment Thursday, but said before Kennedy’s announcement Wednesday that the court had become too ideologically divided already.
“There’s no parity anymore, no reasoning,” he said, in reaction to the 5-4 ruling that government workers can’t be forced to pay into a union they don’t want to join. “There's no fairness in the decisions they’re making,”
Kennedy, often considered the court’s moderate or swing vote, has been key in deciding cases on abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, guns, campaign finance and voting rights. The court already has four justices picked by Democratic presidents and four picked by Republicans, so Trump's pick could shift the ideological balance toward conservatives for years to come.
Abortion rights are at the center of the emerging nomination fight because the court has been so closely divided on the issue, and Kennedy has been a crucial fifth vote.
Julie Lynn, manager of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said in a statement the vacancy battle is a fight not only for the right to access abortion, but “for all of the rights that protect individuals’ ability to live free from discrimination.”
Lynn said the organization has provided a range of reproductive healthcare to 66,000 patients, including 2,000 from Decatur, and was determined to continue doing so.
“Generations of women fought for the rights we have today,” she said, “and we are going to honor their legacy by making sure that our daughters and granddaughters don’t have fewer rights than we do.”
The New Life Pregnancy Center in Decatur provides free health services for pregnant women and promotes anti-abortion decisions, but also educates women on other alternatives.
Penny Weaver, executive director of the center, said she is looking forward to Trump appointing someone who will follow the U.S. Constitution, which she said upholds the sanctity of life.
“That is what is most important,” said Weaver, who described herself as opposed to abortion. “Not to rewrite the laws, but to keep what we have.”
Weaver would also like to see someone young appointed to the bench. “And I would love to see a woman, but with the intellect and the experience,” she said.
Republican and Democratic leaders on Thursday traded accusations and barbed comments, with both sides quickly mobilizing after Kennedy’s announcement.
Republicans are pressing for speedy action — assuming Trump makes a quick announcement of his pick — but Democrats argue that the confirmation action should be put on hold until after the November midterm elections. The Democrats are citing Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell's successful block of President Barack Obama's nominee to the court, Merrick Garland, in 2016. Republicans argued the seat should be left open because it was a presidential election year.
Pillsbury, speaking shortly after Kennedy’s announcement Wednesday, predicted that reaction from Democrats.
“But if you look back over the history, I think you’ll see that Democrats are the ones that basically wrote the book on doing that sort of thing, holding up appointments and that type of thing until after elections,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday it would be the "height of hypocrisy" to vote before this year's election on Trump's nominee.
"If the Senate's constitutional duty to advise and consent is just as important as the president's right to nominate, which the Constitution says it is, why should a midterm election be any less important that a presidential election?" Schumer said.
McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, fired back, saying the situations are not the same.
"This is not 2016. There aren't the final months of a second-term constitutionally lame duck presidency with a presidential election fast approaching. We're right in the middle of this president's very first term," McConnell said.
Trump said he would start the effort to replace Kennedy "immediately" and would pick from a list of 25 names that he updated last year. McConnell declared that the Senate "will vote to confirm Justice Kennedy's successor this fall."
If Republicans unite behind Trump's selection, there's little that Democrats can do to stop it. Republicans changed the Senate rules last year so that Supreme Court nominees cannot be filibustered, meaning only 51 votes will be required to confirm.
Last year, Trump's first nominee to the court, Neil Gorsuch, was confirmed 54-45, with three Democrats voting in favor. Those Democrats — Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota— are facing difficult re-election races and could find it difficult to oppose the president's second pick.
Some possible nominees being eyed include Thomas Hardiman, who serves alongside Trump's sister on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Raymond Kethledge, a federal appeals court judge who clerked for Kennedy. Also of interest are Amul Thapar, a federal appeals court judge from Kentucky who is close to McConnell; Brett Kavanaugh, a former clerk for Kennedy who serves on the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.; and Amy Coney Barrett, who serves on the federal appeals court in Chicago.
The Associated Press and Valerie Wells, Donnette Beckett and Tom Lisi of the Herald & Review contributed to this story.