Supreme Court vacancies in presidential election years
In the wake of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, questions have arisen about whether there is a standard practice of not nominating and confirming Supreme Court Justices during a presidential election year. The historical record does not reveal any instances since at least 1900 of the president failing to nominate and/or the Senate failing to confirm a nominee in a presidential election year because of the impending election. In that period, there were several nominations and confirmations of Justices during presidential election years.
The first nomination during an election year in the twentieth century came on March 13, 1912, when President William Taft (a Republican) nominated Mahlon Pitney to succeed John Marshall Harlan, who died on October 14, 1911. The Republican-controlled Senate confirmed Pitney on March 18, 1912, by a vote of fifty to twenty-six.
President Woodrow Wilson (a Democrat) made two nominations during 1916. On January 28, 1916, Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis to replace Joseph Rucker Lamar, who died on January 2, 1916; the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed Brandeis on June 1, 1916, by a vote of forty-seven to twenty-two. Charles Evans Hughes resigned from the Court on June 10, 1916 to run (unsuccessfully) for president as a Republican. On July 14, 1916, Wilson nominated John Clarke to replace him; Clarke was confirmed unanimously ten days later.
On February 15, 1932, President Herbert Hoover (a Republican) nominated Benjamin Cardozo to succeed Oliver Wendell Holmes, who retired on January 12, 1932. A Republican-controlled Senate confirmed Cardozo by a unanimous voice vote on February 24, 1932.
On January 4, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt (a Democrat) nominated Frank Murphy to replace Pierce Butler, who died on November 16, 1939; Murphy was confirmed by a heavily Democratic Senate on January 16, 1940, by a voice vote.
On November 30, 1987, President Ronald Reagan (a Republican) nominated Justice Anthony Kennedy to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Lewis Powell. A Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed Kennedy (who followed Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg as nominees for that slot) on February 3, 1988, by a vote of ninety-seven to zero.
In two instances in the twentieth century, presidents were not able to nominate and confirm a successor during an election year. But neither reflects a practice of leaving a seat open on the Supreme Court until after the election.
On September 7, 1956, Sherman Minton announced his intent to retire in a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and he served until October 15, 1956. With the Senate already adjourned, Eisenhower made a recess appointment of William J. Brennan to the Court shortly thereafter; Brennan was formally nominated to the Court and confirmed in 1957. The fact that Eisenhower put Brennan on the Court is inconsistent with any tradition of leaving a seat vacant.
And in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Abe Fortas, who was already sitting as an Associate Justice, to succeed Chief Justice Earl Warren, but the Fortas nomination was the target of a bipartisan filibuster – principally in reaction to the Warren Court’s liberalism and ethical questions about Fortas, although objections were certainly also made that it was inappropriate to fill the seat in an election year. That filibuster prompted Homer Thornberry, whom Johnson nominated to succeed Fortas as an Associate Justice, to withdraw his name from consideration in October 1968, because there was no vacancy to fill. Moreover, the failure to confirm Fortas as the Chief Justice did not leave the Court short a Justice, because Chief Justice Earl Warren remained on the bench.
Tom Goldstein also contributed to this post.