Have Presidents Gotten Better at Picking Ideologically-Compatible Justices?
Do Justices vote independently of all political forces surrounding their appointments? My earlier post discusses how, even in recent decades, Justices’ votes have been surprisingly independent of the ideologies of Senates to which they were nominated. Even so, it may be that presidents fared better than the Senate and recently enhanced their ability to appoint ideologically-compatible Justices.
History is rife with examples of Justices who disappointed their appointing presidents. As recounted by Henry Abraham, Teddy Roosevelt complained vociferously about Justice Holmes’ ruling in Northern Securities, Truman called Justice Clark his “biggest mistake,” and Eisenhower also referred to Justices Warren and Brennan as “mistakes.” My earlier study finds frequent grounds for presidential disappointment, based on voting records for eighty-nine Justices over a 172-year period. Just under half of these Justices voted with appointees of the other party most of the time. Still, of the last twelve Justices, only two, Stevens and Souter, aligned most often with appointees of the other party. This low number calls into question whether the frequency of presidential disappointments has diminished recently.
My recent paper identifies change over time using regression analysis and more nuanced measures of presidential ideology. The analysis shows ideologies of appointing presidents did not significantly predict Justices’ votes before the 1970s, but they gained significant predictive power thereafter. This enhanced success coincides with Presidents Nixon’s and Reagan’s efforts to prioritize ideology in appointments to the bench. While earlier presidents did not uniformly ignore nominees’ ideology, they lacked modern technological resources. By the Reagan administration, computerized databases allowed presidential aides to quickly assemble and analyze virtually all of a nominee’s past writings. The improved information may have enabled presidents to better anticipate nominees’ future rulings.