This week, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Those hearings begin as President Barack Obama’s choice for that seat, Judge Merrick Garland, never got a hearing — and Democrats are still angry about it. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said last November on MSNBC, “The seat that is sitting empty is being stolen. It’s being stolen from the Obama administration and the construct of our Constitution.”
Gorsuch is expected to be in the hot seat for three or four days and will have to answer the toughest questions senators can serve up. Gorsuch himself once called the process “an ideological food fight.” But the partisan brawl everyone expects for Gorsuch is a relatively new tradition.
For most of American history, the Senate didn’t look at Supreme Court nominees as political footballs. When that changed is a matter of debate. Some liberals say it happened in 1968, a watershed year when Vietnam was raging, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed and President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to elevate his friend Abe Fortas from associate justice to chief justice. Some conservatives, however, point to 1987 as the year things changed, when President Ronald Reagan nominated a controversial judge, Robert Bork, and Democrats mounted an all-out war against him, including TV ads. New York University constitutional law professor Rick Pildes told Yahoo News about Bork: “He was a well-respected Yale law professor, but in terms of his substantive views on various constitutional issues, he was very controversial and controversial enough that the opposition to him managed to be successful to actually block his appointment.”
And yet others say it began in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush’s nominee, Clarence Thomas, was under fire for alleged sexual harassment. During Thomas’s hearings, he famously said, “This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace, and from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I’m concerned it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”
Modern confirmation hearings aren’t always a political circus though. The hearings for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Chief Justice John Roberts, for example, were much less heated.
Regardless of how contentious Judge Gorsuch’s hearings become, at least when it comes to Supreme Court confirmation fights, you can say, “Now I get it.”