With the Supreme Court in the news, I’ve decided to brush off some of my favorite court history books and tell some interesting stories you might not know about the court, its traditions and justices.
The most influential woman in the history of the United States is a dignified former Arizona ranch hand.
It’s not that Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court that makes her so important. It’s that, for 15 years, she was the swing vote on the court. Hers was the most important vote in the nation during the 2000 election. Her work on cases like Planned Parenthood V. Casey will influence the country for generations.
While we normally name a court after the Chief Justice – in other words, we call this the Roberts Court, which came after the Rehnquist Court – it’s not often the chief who matters.
Oh, sure, he can decide who writes opinions in certain circumstances. And he can put his touch on the court in other ways as well. It’s the center that decides the outcome of the cases, however, and O’Connor’s time at the center, roughly from the time William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall resigned in 1990/1991 to her own retirement in 2005, lasted a very long time.
Since her retirement, O’Connor has been a great advocate for teaching civics in school through her iCivics program.
A few people who watch the court are turning to O’Connor as we deal with the late Antonin Scalia’s replacement on the court.
These people are starting to argue that Obama could nominate Her Honor back to the court *for a short time to allow the court to move forward.
It’s a novel idea and not without precedent. John Rutledge was on the court twice, the second time ending in disaster (see previous post). Charles Evans Hughes was also appointed twice.
I’m not sure O’Connor, at 86, would do it; she seems content in retirement. But she’s the definition of a statesman, and if the president called and pitched the idea, she’d serve her country again.
It certainly is an outside-the-box approach. In private conversations, I’ve said George Mitchell, who walked away from a judgeship to become a senator, could fill this bill. He’s well respected by both parties. He’s still active. Like O’Connor, it would clearly be a short term fix.
But the question I keep coming back to is “What precedent does this set?”
I think getting a compromise candidate would be great for the country short term. Hell, I just want to see some grown ups get together and do their damn jobs. However, this might be throwing out the long-term interests not just of Obama’s legacy and party, but of the country.
What does it say that a president – who earned 332 electoral college votes, won 26 states, gobbled up more than 5 million more votes than his opponent – still has 11 months of his term left ** to say, “Hey, I can be bullied by a party that says it won’t vote for my nominee even though I haven’t named that person yet?”
The president campaigned that he would change Washington, DC. He clearly hasn’t been able to, though that’s not all on him.
Does naming an O’Connor or a Mitchell do that? I’m not sure. But I don’t see how caving to the opposition does in this case either.
*Thanks to friends Mike Hoover and Joe Deinlein who sent along the link to the column referenced above.
** His term doesn’t end in November, people. Obama holds office until late January, 2017.