In this heated political season, one theme that comes up every four years is the threat (on both sides) of who the new president will appoint to the Supreme Court. Now that the rancor has died down and Neil Gorsuch has been sworn in as a new Supreme Court justice, how much does it matter? The politicians and the media make a big deal of this. And, certainly, a president can influence the direction of the court—especially if they have the opportunity to appoint several people to the court. Voters are warned that if they vote for the “wrong” candidate the country will be ruined forever by a crazy Supreme Court. The selection of supreme court justices takes on ominous consequences.
But how powerful and meaningful are these appointments—really?
Here’s an example from history that may put this fear into perspective. When Dwight Eisenhower was president (ancient history, I know!) in the 50’s, he appointed a solid politician from California to the U.S Supreme Court—Ear Warren. Warren had started his career as the prosecutor in Oakland, California and run for office on a law-and-order platform, promising to “get tough on criminals.” After his successful work there, he ran for governor of California and won. He dreamed of himself running for president and launched a campaign for that in the early 50’s. When he got the to Republican convention in 1952, it became obvious that he didn’t stand a chance. He was much more a politician than Neil Gorsuch.
Instead, he switched his allegiance to the popular general, who had just decided that he was a Republican, and persuaded the California delegation to do the same. Warren even made the nominating speech for Eisenhower.
Of course, Eisenhower went on to defeat Adlai Stevenson in the general election. As a reward to Warren, Eisenhower made his selection of supreme court justices by appointing the former prosecutor and law-and-order man to the supreme court.
At first, Warren was quiet but he gained political strength and became the chief justice. During the 60’s the Warren court veered far to the liberal side in defense of criminal rights. Warren and his colleagues decided some of the most far-reaching cases that protected the rights of criminals against brutal and aggressive police tactics. The law-and-order people and conservatives went nuts. They felt like Warren had “turned on them.”
Eisenhower even said, in later years, that “Warren was the worst damn decision I ever made as president.” What will President Trump say of Neil Gorsuch in the future? Will most people pay attention to Justice Neil Gorsuch in the future?
Here’s the point: even though the supreme court nominees appear to think in a particular fashion, once they get the position on the supreme court—a lifetime appointment—they are free to decide cases in any way they like. And, many times, they surprise their strongest supporters by doing, not what the politicians want, but what their conscience dictates.
At least, Justice Neil Gorsuch had a solid record as a judge—even if you disagree with some of his decisions. How he will vote in the future? Neil Gorsuch probably doesn’t know until the specific cases reach his desk.