Supreme Bios and Future Judges

Posted on December 25, 2010 by

Recent biographies of two of the most important supreme court justices of the 20th century – Louis Brandeis and Earl Warren – underscore the current critical battle over President Obama’s judicial nominees.

First to the books:

Melvin Urofsky’s 2009 Louis D. Brandeis – A Life details the extraordinary talents and achievements of one of America’s great progressive-era reformers who, on the supreme court (appointed by democrat Woodrow Wilson) from 1916 – 1938, revolutionized free-speech and privacy protections (and whose seat on the court represents a notable line of succession:  William O. Douglas, John Paul Stevens, Elena Kagan).

Jim Newton’s 2006 Justice for All – Earl Warren and the Nation He Made follows California’s republican governor’s ascendance to chief justice from 1953 – 1969, leading the court in defining and enforcing civil and equal rights.  (Among Warren’s most important allies on the court was fellow Eisenhower appointee William Brennan). 

The high court’s liberal impulse has diminished considerably over the past 40 years but even its moderate approach on race and due process, for example, would not have been possible without several key republican appointees (Nixon – Blackmun, Powell;  Ford – Stevens;  Reagan – O’Connor, Kennedy;  Bush I – Souter).

Those days are so gone. Future republican supreme court appointees are certain to be hard-line conservatives (when right-wing activists forced Bush II to withdraw Harriet Miers in favor of Samuel Alito in 2005, they demonstrated their determination to permanently foreclose judicial surprises like Stevens / Souter).

Now, republican senators are using procedural tactics to force confirmation fights on almost every Obama federal district and appeals court nominee and – for the first time in history – are stalling and blocking more judicial appointees than they approve.

Among the most appalling is the senate republican’s refusal to allow an up-or-down vote on Goodwin Liu, the president’s  choice to fill one of several long-standing vacancies on the western states 9th circuit court of appeals.

Liu’s outstanding academic credentials and relative youth (he’s 40), make him a possible future pick for the supreme court and conservatives want to clog the pipeline for the talented legal scholar.

So with five additional republican senators in the next congress, minority leader Mitch McConnell will clearly try to further weaken the president’s prerogative to pick judges. 

How does Mr. Obama’s “bipartisan” approach to governing square with senate republican’s abuse of its role to advise and consent?  And what’s the white house going to do?

Comments (2)


  1. This is very important. Probably more important than elections. We should also keep in mind that it is not just the courts. There are also administrative agencies that can’t get their work done because the Senate filibuster rules have blocked the Senate from performing their “advise and consent” responsibilities. There are sitting Supreme Court justices that perjured themselves in their Senate confirmation hearings. Now we are stuck with the case of corporations contributing as much money as they want to the political process without revealing their sources. Eternal vigilance!

  2. I am about half way through the Brandeis book. It is a most compelling read. While it may look a tad dry and daunting given the length, it is anything but. I knew a little about Brandeis (like most of us, knew he was an important Supreme Court Justice and that a university is named after him, but not much else) before picking up the book. Not only does the book detail his life and monumental (and game changing) work, but gives us tremendous insight to the incredible times in which he lived, as well as a unique perspective on the titans of his times.

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