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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Supreme Court Nominations Have Become “Political”

Anyone who has been around for a while probably understands how and why Supreme Court confirmations have become partisan, like everything else. But I provided a quick history lesson at New York:

Beneath the hilariously insincere conservative criticism of President Biden for “politicizing” the Supreme Court selection process by pledging to name the Court’s first Black woman is a very different reality: Both political parties fear a “rogue” justice who will align herself against the “team” responsible for her nomination. This concern is much stronger among Republicans, who feel a number of GOP-appointed jurists betrayed them in the past. These grievances were a principal reason for conservatives’ appreciation of Donald Trump’s tightly controlled, highly transactional system for choosing Supreme Court members.

The biggest betrayal of all came on June 29, 1992, when a Republican Party that had already come under the control of the anti-abortion movement was shocked at the decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Expected to deliver the long-awaited overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Court instead gave the central holding of Roe a lease on another three decades of life, with all five justices who upheld abortion rights having been appointed by Republican presidents. One of those five, Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy, frustrated Republicans off and on for another quarter-century and earned the eternal enmity of cultural conservatives with authorship of the majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, creating a federally established right to same-sex marriage. The biggest favor Kennedy did for his party was to retire when it controlled the White House, allowing Trump to nominate former Kennedy clerk Brett Kavanaugh, a safely ideological successor.

It’s telling that of the five Judases who handed down Casey, two (Justices Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor) were appointed by Mr. Conservative himself, Ronald Reagan, while another (David Souter) was appointed by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush. A fourth apostate (John Paul Stevens) was appointed by Gerald Ford, and a fifth (Harry Blackmun) was appointed by Richard Nixon.

Blackmun wrote the main opinion in Roe v. Wade, but that’s not even the most striking example of a Republican-appointed justice who went rogue. That would be Chief Justice Earl Warren, who presided over the Court as it handed down multiple famous decisions promoting civil rights and civil liberties. Conservatives despised and denounced Warren’s jurisprudence for decades. Yet this appointee of Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower had been a highly partisan Republican politician before becoming chief justice. He was Thomas Dewey’s running mate in 1948, and before being elected governor of California in 1942, he was chairman of the state GOP and a member of the anti-Asian nativist group Native Sons of the Golden West. Most famously, as governor during World War II, Warren championed the internment of around 100,000 Japanese Americans, the majority of them U.S. citizens. He was not a very likely prospect to become the most famously progressive chief justice in the Court’s history. That’s how it goes with lifetime appointments to the federal bench: Teamwork cannot be taken for granted. Another of Ike’s appointees to the Court, William Brennan, built a reputation even more liberal than Warren’s.

Thanks to the Republican control of the presidency for 44 of the 77 years since World War II and some vagaries of luck (Democrat Jimmy Carter had no Supreme Court openings to fill, whereas Donald Trump had three), Democrats have had fewer opportunities to be “betrayed” by Court appointees. Truman appointee Sherman Minton, another former politician (he had been a Democratic senator from Indiana) became a leading advocate of judicial restraint. JFK’s sole appointee, Byron “Whizzer” White, was one of the original dissenters in Roe v. Wade (and was still around to dissent in Casey). In 2008, Democratic presidential aspirant Bill Richardson cited White as his favorite justice, and it damaged Richardson’s campaign significantly.

In any event, the partisan anger spurred by all these apostates is pretty good evidence that the idea of a “politicized” process for selecting Supreme Court justices is neither new nor newly unpopular. The long-term trend is in favor of more careful vetting to ensure “betrayals” don’t happen, with Republicans insisting on conformity as much as Democrats. No “team” likes a player who runs the wrong way.

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