Navigating the New Politics of Judicial Appointments
50 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2008 Last revised: 28 Mar 2009
This Review Essay explores the new politics of judicial appointments by addressing the important question whether Senate-specific reforms to the judicial appointments process are likely to succeed. In his recent book, The Next Justice, Chris Eisgruber proposes a two-part plan to repair the Supreme Court appointments process. Like many other scholars that have written in the area, Eisgruber's reforms focus primarily on the Senate. First, he proposes that the Senate get smart by asking penetrating questions about the judicial philosophy of Supreme Court nominees in an effort to ensure that the future Justices are moderates, rather than extremists. Second, he proposes that the Senate get tough by standing up to the President and rejecting any nominee who does not prove to be moderate, or who fails to give satisfactory answers at the confirmation hearings.
In this Review Essay, the authors note several flaws in Eisgruber's proposals, many of which are applicable to other, similar reform proposals advanced by other scholars. First, Eisguber offers an incomplete diagnosis of the reasons behind the growing politicization of the appointments process, underestimating in particular the prominent role played by interest groups and the media in shaping the process. The political pressures on Senators make it unlikely that they can become tougher and more assertive in the process, either by adopting a more probing set of questions at confirmation hearings or by rejecting nominees in favor of judicial moderates.
Second, drawing on a rich political science literature, the authors demonstrate why a get tough strategy by the Senate in the judicial appointments process is likely to provoke a strong response from the President. Like many other scholars in the area, Eisgruber fails to address the myriad tools available to Presidents to deal with Senate resistance. The basic and most powerful tool for Presidents is the strategic selection of Supreme Court nominees, especially those with excellent qualifications, which can make it difficult for Senators to delay or reject those nominees. In the face of an obstructionist Senate, Presidents can also draw upon their substantial institutional strength by going public and touting the qualifications and attributes of the nominee, by making or threatening a recess appointment, and by employing ordinary legislative techniques like logrolling strategies and credible veto threats. Strategic employment of these tools makes it more difficult for Senators of all parties to obstruct Supreme Court nominees and helps to explain why the vast majority of such nominees during the past century have been confirmed by the Senate.
Keywords: Judicial Appointments, Supreme Court, Justices, Veto Threats, Strategic Selection
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By David Stras