'Advice and Consent' in the Appointments Clause: From Another Historical Perspective
Duke Law Journal Online, Volume 64, May 2015
20 Pages Posted: 21 Jan 2016
Date Written: January 20, 2016
“Most of us spend too much time on the last twenty-four hours and too little on the last six thousand years.” – Will Durant
The sharply contrasting experiences of John G. Roberts, Jr. and William Howard Taft with the Article II, Section 2 appointments process illustrate that the long view of history is governed by perspective. William Howard Taft, the twenty-seventh President, also later became the tenth Chief Justice of the United States. Taft was nominated for the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — a position he openly admired — on June 30, 1921, and was confirmed by the Senate in a closed executive session the very same day. The current Chief Justice, John Roberts, Jr., experienced a more peripatetic journey in his ascension to the high court. President George H.W. Bush first nominated Justice Roberts to the federal bench in 1992. Despite his nomination, he never received a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which first reviews nominees before reporting them out to the Senate for a vote. Roberts was nominated a second time a decade later, and again, never received a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His third nomination — to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, by President George W. Bush in 2003 — was the charm. That time, Justice Roberts received a hearing, was reported out favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and received a positive vote by the Senate. Two years later, in 2005, he was nominated and confirmed as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Professor Weaver provides his perspective of the Appointments Clause filtered by the lens of history. He eloquently argues that the Article II, Section 2 process that gives the Senate “advice and consent” power over the Executive’s nominations of judges, officers of the United States, and ambassadors “wasn’t supposed to be easy.” In fact, he observes that the Senate’s role in the confirmation process — likely included because of a basic distrust of government — sometimes has been “contentious and ideologically driven.” Professor Weaver’s historical review also emphasizes that Judge Robert Bork’s failed 1987 nomination to the United States Supreme Court was not a watershed moment in the Senate’s consideration of ideology in performing its advice and consent function, with ideological considerations utilized in confirmation proceedings as far back as the country’s nascent years in the late 1700s.
While I align with Professor Weaver about the Bork proceedings and the well-established use of ideology in the appointments process, we hold differing perspectives on what the appointments-process history means. Specifically, our divergence extends roughly for 225 years, with the first difference extending to his sanguinity with the Senate’s historical deference to presidential nominees — a deference that essentially eschews a responsibility to advise — and the second difference concerning his characterization of the current era as only digressing from traditional functionality by “a matter of degree rather than [representing] a reflection of a fundamental shift in the nature of the confirmation process.” That assessment improperly conflates “a matter of degree” with seismic cultural, technological and political changes over the past several decades that have greatly enhanced the dysfunction of the appointments process.
A central premise of this paper is that the brilliance of the Appointments Clause has become obscured by dysfunction past and present. The Senate’s deference to the President’s nominees in the past was just as damaging to effective government as some of the political polarization and obstruction of the current day. In other words, the appointments process has changed over time, but not necessarily for the worse. Historical rubber-stamping of nominees by the Senate, with lightning-fast approval, is not preferable to careful and reflective consideration and the opportunity for collaborative competency between two branches of government. Yet, today’s new appointments process is fraught with peril, from wholesale refusal to act in a timely manner to staged public hearings designed to reveal nothing. Some of these new tactics are inconsistent with the process values of the clause and have a far-reaching impact.
Vacancies in the federal courts, in particular, broadly impact the quality of justice in the country. With an implied presumption of confirmation favoring an executive who nominates with discretion, this paper suggests that the Senate ought to provide a robust but controlled check on presidential discretion through due diligence and individualized public evaluation, while also ensuring that its own rules do not get in the way of a timely and effective process.
This Essay first explores the Clause’s antecedents in the Age of Enlightenment and its emergence in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, showing how its sturdy separation-of-powers foundation was built. In Part II, the Essay focuses on the historical realities of the Clause’s two-branch process, especially how the operability of two political bodies naturally yields results consonant with the etiquette and political sensibilities of the day. Then, in Part III, it offers several suggestions on how to cabin the potentially untrammeled discretion of the Senate in responding to presidential nominations.
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