History is on the side of Republicans filling a Supreme Court vacancy in 2020

Nineteen times between 1796 and 1968, presidents have sought to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in a presidential-election year while their party controlled the Senate. Ten of those nominations came before the election; nine of the ten were successful, the only failure being the bipartisan filibuster of the ethically challenged Abe Fortas as chief justice in 1968. Justices to enter the Court under these circumstances included such legal luminaries as Louis Brandeis and Benjamin Cardozo. George Washington made two nominations in 1796, one of them a chief justice replacing a failed nominee the prior year. It was his last year in office, and the Adams–Jefferson race to replace him was bitter and divisive. Woodrow Wilson made two nominations in 1916, one of them to replace Charles Evans Hughes, who had resigned from the Court to run for president against Wilson. Wilson was in a tight reelection campaign that was not decided until California finished counting votes a week after Election Day. Three of the presidents who got election-year nominees confirmed (Benjamin Harrison in 1892, William Howard Taft in 1912, and Herbert Hoover in 1932) were on their way to losing reelection, in Taft’s and Hoover’s cases by overwhelming margins. But they still had the Senate, so they got their nominees through.

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Nine times, presidents have made nominations after the election in a lame-duck session. These include some storied nominations, such as John Adams picking Chief Justice John Marshall in 1801 and Abraham Lincoln selecting Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase in 1864. Of the nine, the only one that did not succeed was Washington’s 1793 nomination of William Paterson, which was withdrawn for technical reasons and resubmitted and confirmed the first day of the next Congress (Paterson had helped draft the Judiciary Act of 1789 creating the Court, and the Constitution thus required his term as a senator to end before he could be appointed to the Court). Two of Andrew Jackson’s nominees on the last day of his term were confirmed a few days later, without quibbles. In no case did the Senate reject a nominee or refuse to act on a nomination; why would they? Three of the presidents who filled lame-duck vacancies — Adams, Martin Van Buren, and Benjamin Harrison — had already lost reelection.

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