Updated on September 18, 2020, at 8:47 p.m. ET.
A furious battle over a Supreme Court vacancy is arguably the last thing the United States needs right now.
The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg today represents a devastating loss for feminists who held up the 87-year-old as an icon of women’s rights, and as a bulwark protecting abortion rights and a wide range of other progressive ideals on a conservative Supreme Court. The Brooklyn-born jurist became one of the nation’s foremost advocates against gender discrimination as a lawyer for the ACLU, decades before President Bill Clinton appointed her to be the second woman to sit on the high court.
But her passing less than two months before the presidential election also tosses one more lit match into the tinderbox of national politics in 2020: It will surely inflame a deeply polarized country already riven by a deadly pandemic, a steep economic downturn, and civil unrest in its major cities.
In Washington, the vacancy fight could ratchet up tensions to a level unseen even in the tumultuous Trump era. President Donald Trump will be eager to fill Ginsburg’s seat immediately, seizing an opportunity to rally his base before the election and to cement his legacy in the event that he is defeated in November. He could also become the first president since Richard Nixon to install three justices on the high court in a single four-year term. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already indicated that he’s ready for another confirmation battle, either before or immediately after the election. Republicans might be hard-pressed to consider and approve a Trump nominee in the eight weeks before November, but even a victory by Vice President Joe Biden and a Democratic takeover of the Senate might not prevent Trump from successfully appointing another justice. Republicans would still control both the White House and the Senate until a new Congress takes office in early January.