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Leahy says senators should not serve if they are afraid to vote

US Senator Patrick Leahy.
US Senator Patrick Leahy.(Lauren Victoria Burke/Associated Press)

US Senator Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Friday that the Republican Senate leadership would be shirking its constitutional duty if it blocks a vote on anyone nominated by President Obama to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

“I know there are some senators who don’t want to have to vote because they will bother one constituency or another depending on how they vote,” the Vermont Democrat said while being honored at an event in Boston. “You shouldn’t be in the Senate if you are afraid to vote. If you are afraid to vote then go find another job.”

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Leahy said it would “diminish the country” and the Senate and set a dangerous precedent if Republican leaders refuse to allow hearings and a vote on a presidential nominee, leaving a vacancy on the nation’s highest court for more than a year.

Leahy made his remarks after receiving an award from the New England First Amendment Coalition for his work to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act and improve transparency within the court system.

The sudden death Feb. 13 of Scalia, a conservative icon, created a vacancy on the court that could tilt the balance of power as the panel considers crucial cases involving abortion, contraception, immigration, unions, voting rights, and global warming.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell quickly called for a delay in confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice until after a new president is elected and sworn in.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,” McConnell wrote on his Facebook page hours after Scalia’s death.

Leahy said President Obama told him he plans to nominate a qualified person for the Supreme Court. “He has the right, actually I would say he has the duty, to nominate somebody and we have the duty to . . . vote up or down.”

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Leahy, who has served in the Senate for more than four decades and been a member of the Judiciary Committee for 36 years, said Supreme Court nominees have always been given a hearing during his tenure.

He noted that he voted, along with the Democratic-controlled Senate, to confirm Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and unanimously confirmed in 1988, an election year.

“To preemptively reject any consideration of the next Supreme Court justice is unprecedented, it’s dangerous,” Leahy said during a keynote speech at the awards luncheon.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paused as they paid respects beside the casket of Associated Justice Antonin Scalia as it lies in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court on Friday.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paused as they paid respects beside the casket of Associated Justice Antonin Scalia as it lies in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court on Friday.(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Shelley Murphy can be reached at Shelley.Murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.