Is being made of the new look of the Supreme Court...


October 06, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

A LOT is being made of the new look of the Supreme Court, a look brought about by the recent rapid turnover.

There is a brand new justice (Stephen Breyer) this term, which just began; there was a new one (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) at the beginning of last term; there was a new one (Clarence Thomas) for the 1991-1992 term, and a new one (David Souter) for the 1990-1991 term.

So four new justices in four years. A new justice (Anthony Kennedy) joined the court in the middle of the 1987-1988 term. So a majority of the nine justices came aboard in just six years and seven months.

That's impressive, but it's not as unusual as you might think.

A majority of new justices joined the court in the six years and two months between Oct. 1, 1969 and Dec. 1, 1975. They were Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, William Rehnquist and John Paul Stevens.

That crew is different from the latest bunch of juniors. All five were nominated by two successive Republican presidents, Richard Nixon (Burger, Blackmun, Rehnquist, Powell) and Gerald Ford (Stevens). The present new majority was named by three presidents of two parties. Ronald Reagan named Kennedy, George Bush named Souter and Thomas, Bill Clinton named Ginsburg and Breyer.

Naming at least four justices has been the pleasure of ten presidents: Dwight Eisenhower named five from 1953 through 1959. Harry Truman named four from 1945 through 1949. Franklin D. Roosevelt named nine, 1937-1943.

Warren Harding named four, 1921-1923. William Howard Taft named six, 1909-1912. U.S. Grant named four, 1870-1874. Abraham Lincoln named five, 1862-1864. Andy Jackson named five, 1829-1836.

And George Washington named 11, 1789-1796.

Will Bill Clinton make it to four? I'd say it's highly unlikely, unless he gets a second term. Two present justices are often said to be ready to retire soon: Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is 70, and John Paul Stevens, who is 74. I wouldn't bet on it. They're young for retirement by Supreme Court standards. The last retiree was 85 (Harry Blackmun); the last before him, 77 (Byron White); last before him, 83 (Thurgood Marshall); before him, 84 (William Brennan).

I'm not sure Bill Clinton could make it to four even if both Rehnquist and Stevens retired during his first term. Nominees must be confirmed by the Senate, and while Republicans probably could not permanently block a nomination made next year, even if they control the Senate, they probably could permanently block a nomination made in the presidential election year of 1996, even if they don't control the Senate. In presidential election year 1968, when Democrats controlled the Senate by a lopsided 64-36, Republicans filibustered to defeat two Lyndon Johnson nominees.

Monday: Bill Clinton's other judges.

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