There were several ugly back-and-forths between Kavanaugh and the Senate Judiciary Committee members Thursday, and both the media and social media coverage of the hearing has ranged from heated to vicious. But difficult Supreme Court confirmations really aren’t so rare…and they’re becoming more common all the time.
There have been 163 nominations to the Supreme Court submitted by Presidents since it was founded more than two centuries ago. Of these, reports USA Today, 125 were confirmed and 38 were withdrawn, postponed or rejected.
One of George Washington’s appointments, John Rutledge, was rejected because he disagreed with the treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain, unpopular with the American people but approved by the Senate.
President Herbert Hoover was shocked in 1930 when his nominee, John J. Parker, was rejected after 74 years of no confirmation troubles. And Richard Nixon was the first president since Hoover to have nominees rejected; two of his picks were booted by the Senate.
But things started to get ugly in 1987, when Ronald Reagan made a nomination that could change the balance of the Supreme Court. When he chose Robert Bork, there was strong opposition to his nomination from the Democratic majority, led at the time by Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Kennedy gave an impassioned speech that “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government,” and that’s pretty strong stuff.
Bork’s confirmation vote failed, and many conservatives were angered by that. Interestingly, it was Anthony Kennedy who was confirmed to the court after Bork was rejected. Kennedy’s seat is the one that is now vacant at this particular moment in history.
Even more recently, Merrick Garland was nominated by Barack Obama in 2016. In a highly controversial move, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to vote on the nomination for months while they waited for Obama’s presidency to run its course. They got their way, and Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch to the court a year later.
Famously, Clarence Thomas also didn’t have an easy road to the Supreme Court after he was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. According to CBS News, at the time his supporters said he was being “borked” in a reference to the 1987 problems getting Robert Bork confirmed to the court.
Contentious confirmations may be rare, but they are not new. Now, if the last three nominations show us anything, it’s starting to look as though they may become more the norm than the exception.