In the battle for the ideological control of the US Supreme Court, the Republicans have been luckier

Kenza Bouhaj
Sep 19, 2020 · 5 min read

Descriptive statistics of previous Supreme Court appointments by US Presidents from 1945 to present.

“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new President is installed”

Those were the dying wishes of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away yesterday (September 18, 2020) due to complications from cancer.

The news of the passing of Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reverberated across the US and the world. Millions are mourning and grieving a feminist icon who has tirelessly worked to ensure gender equality through the Law.

Even before her passing could be properly mourned, it has ignited what promises to be a fierce political battle between the Republicans and the Democrats. The two Parties will be fighting on whether the current President will nominate her replacement, at a time that is so close to the general election on November 3rd. Supreme Court appointments are critical because they are lifetime appointments (the Justice leaves the Court when she retires or when she dies), and each President typically appoints a Justice that is ideologically close to their party. With only three liberal Justices left on the Court and five conservatives, the next Justice appointment might tilt the ideological balance of the Court towards Conservatism for an entire generation.

Intrigued by the Institution (the Supreme Court) and the appointment process of the Justices, I research whether either Party has had a historical advantage in appointments since the end of World War II. I summarize my findings in this blog post, emphasizing that my data goes back to 1945.

Less than one third of Presidents were able to appoint 3 or more Justices to the Supreme Court

Since 1945, the United States has had thirteen Presidents, from Truman (1945–1953) to Trump (2016-today). Each one of these Presidents has had the opportunity to appoint at least one Supreme Court Justice, with Ford having appointed the lowest number (only one, Justice Stevens) and Eisenhower having appointed the highest number (five, including Justice Brennan).

Of the thirteen, 7 Presidents were able to appoint exactly 2 Justices (including Trump). That is about 54% of all Presidents since 1945. A handful — Eisenhower, Truman, Reagan and Nixon — were able to appoint three or more Justices. That is, about ~31% of the last thirteen Presidents. Should Trump and the Senate Republicans move ahead with a vote to confirm a nominee to replace Ruth Ginsburg, Trump would be added to this small group.

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The number of Justices appointed by decade has decreased since the 1950s. Between 2000 and 2020, only 3 appointments were made in each decade, compared with 5 appointments in the 1950s and the 1960s.

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Of the four Presidents who have appointed more than 2 Justices, only one was a Democrat

Of the handful Presidents who have appointed more than 2 Justices, three were Republican, and only one (Truman) was a Democrat. This has given the Republican Party a big advantage in appointing more conservative-learning Justices. However, their level of Conservatism might vary depending on the Judge, and might also evolve throughout the years.

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Of the 32 Justices who served on the Court since 1945, 20 were appointed by a Republican President

That’s around ~63% of the total Justices who have served on the Court in the past 75 years.

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Moreover, when we look at the split by decade, we notice that the Republicans have had a dominant position in the 1970s and 1980s, and have appointed two thirds of new Justices since 2000.

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Of the 5 Presidents who’ve served only one term, only one (Nixon) was able to appoint more than two Justices

Below is a list of Presidents who did not serve two full terms (Nixon was impeached in his second term, and LBJ did not run for a second term after he assumed the Presidency after Kennedy’s death). Of these Presidents, only Nixon was able to appoint more than three Justices.

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On average, the Republican-nominated Justices stayed on the job for 20 years, 10 years longer than their Democratic-nominated colleagues

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Among the five longest-serving members of the Court, four were appointed by Republicans, and only one was appointed by a Democrat. Those are:

  • Justice Stevens, appointed by President Ford (R), served 35 years on the Court (1975–2010)
  • Justice Brennan, appointed by President Eisenhower (R), served 34 years on the Court (1956–1990)
  • Justice White, appointed by President Kennedy (D), served 31 years on the Court (1962–1990)
  • Justice Scalia, appointed by President Reagan (R), served 30 years on the Court (1986–2016)
  • Justice Anthony Kennedy, appointed by President Reagan (R), served 30 years on the Court (1988–2018)

Concluding words

There is a body of literature in political science that meticulously analyzes the evolution of the ideological leanings of the Supreme Court. More information can be found here.

If you’ve read all the way, thank you! Would love to hear your thoughts.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Kenza Bouhaj

Written by

Curious. Passionate about storytelling through data. Interested in Work, Skills and EdTech. Twitter: @KenzaBouhaj

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Kenza Bouhaj

Written by

Curious. Passionate about storytelling through data. Interested in Work, Skills and EdTech. Twitter: @KenzaBouhaj

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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