Like those of yore, Barack Obama’s infant Presidency is filled with firsts: first press conference, first foreign trip, first missile attack into a pesky Third World pariah.
Now he can add his first Supreme Court nominee, with the appointment of federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor to the country’s highest bench. Bronx-born, Puerto-Rican, female–Sotomayor is all things good Democrats smile about. I like her as well, being that my students can have someone from the projects they can actually emulate who isn’t on MTV or in Rikers Island. Plus, her vague voting record on hot-button issues can turn her into her predecessor, David Souter–a moderate in conservative clothing.
Before we pop the bubbly, however, there is a chance–a slim chance–that Sotomayor may not get the nomination. If she does not, Sonia will not be alone. 34 nominees have been rejected since the first batch appointed by George Washington. Let’s look at the memorable high court duds that have graced, or disgraced, our headlines, thanks to David Holzel’s article at Mental Floss, as well as the good folks at CQ Press and other sources.
Robert Bork – Children of the Eighties remember the facial hair alone–it made him look like an Amish villain in a James Bond film. It wasn’t the only strike against him. Ronald Reagan’s most famous appointee–after Sandra Day O’Connor–Bork lost largely because he voted and talked exactly as he thought, and he did it a lot. A US Court of Appeals judge and a legal scholar, Bork produced reams of conservative opinions and legal reviews. This didn’t mean he was a bad guy, but his liberal enemies made him out as a beast who eats minority children. So the Amish Goldfinger lost after 12 days of contentous hearings.
Alexander Wolcott – We’re a year away from Revolution Round Two, or the War of 1812, and James Madison appoints the single most unpopular guy in the New World to the court. Wolcott was defeated by widest margin of any nominee in history, 9-24. The Connecticut customs inspector lost for two reasons: (1) he was a customs inspector, and never set foot inside a courtroom; and (2) He openly enforced two of the most unpopular laws in history, the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts. These 1807 measures designed to prevent our getting sucked into the Napoleonic Wars actually caused widespread financial ruin, especially in his native Connecticut. They were glad to see this bozo gone.
John Rutledge – Signer of the US Constitution, brother of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Rutledge had Chief Justice written all over him in 1795, when Washington appointed him to replace John Jay. It was a recess appointment, and Rutledge had a few months to sit on the bench before the Senate would appoint him. During that time, he decided to self-destruct. He gave controversial speeches against the 1795 Jay Treaty, which normalized relations with Great Britain. Rutledge also had been fighting alcoholism and bouts of insanity since his wife’s death. When the Senate saw the rum-swilling, insane troublemaker in December, they made quick work of him, and rejected him on December 15.
Douglas Ginsburg – After the Bork fiasco, Reagan attempted to quietly insert Anthony Kennedy as the nominee. Conservatives in the Senate weren’t buying it, thus the Ginsburg situation. Douglas Ginsburg was a conservative appellate judge with a solid record and one vice–marijuana. Now, if this had been as a student, the Senate may have looked the other way, as they did with Clarence Thomas’ disclosure of pot use in law school. The problem was that Ginsburg admitted to drape-smoking as an assistant professor at Harvard–thus, as a grown-up. Grown-ups put away such childish things, Douggie (wink, wink) and the Senate agreed.
Ebenezer Hoar – The late 19th Century’s answer to Mike Hock and I.P. Freely. Besides having an unfortunate name, Ebenezer had the altogether bigger problem of NOT being his namesake. Ulysses Grant’s Attorney General lost his nomination approval because he was honest–pretty much the only honest man in Washington besides poor General Grant, himself. A staunch advocate of civil service reform and merit advancement, Hoar was reviled by the Senate for not lining up to line their pockets with pork. Hoar just couldn’t stoop to being a whore.
Wheeler Hazard Peckham and William B. Hornblower – These two poor guys were the victims of senatorial courtesy. One of many unwritten rules of the Senate chamber is that a senator has the right to reject a court nomination simply because the nominee is from the senator’s home state. In 1894, these New York attorneys were appointed by Grover Cleveland. Just as quickly, Senator David Hill invoked his privilege to kill both nominations.
Caleb Cushing – Some nominees fail because they’re too conservative. Some because they’re too liberal. Cushing lost because no one could figure out where he stood on anything. A former US Attorney General in the 1850s, Cushing was appointed by Ulysses Grant at the ripe old age of 74, which didn’t help matters. During his career, Cushing was a Whig, a Tyler Whig, a Democrat, a Johnson Constitutional Conservative, and a Republican. Being a political chameleon is okay today (think Bill Clinton) but political poison in the 19th Century. Cushing made so many enemies on both sides that Grant just withdrew his name before the Senate could even vote.
Maybe he should smoke a fat one with Ginsburg. They could light their doobies with a flaming copy of the Dred Scott decision–finally putting it to good use.