Supreme Court Appointments Are Always Soap Operas, with Gavel-to-Gavel Coverage

This Rehnquist Supreme Court photograph, circa 1989, is signed by all nine justices, including Antonin Scalia and William H. Rehnquist. It realized $1,171.25 at an April 2015 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On June 17, 1986 – to the surprise of his colleagues, the public and President Reagan – Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Warren Burger submitted his resignation. After 17 years as head of the U.S. federal court system and within months of his 79th birthday, Burger wanted to devote all of his time to organizing ceremonies for the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution in 1987.

Almost immediately, President Reagan announced his choice for Burger’s replacement: sitting Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist. Judge Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., was selected to fill the vacant position. The Burger court had been surprisingly active in civil rights and President Reagan resolved to fill the vacancies with conservative, strict constitutionalists.

Rehnquist certainly met these criteria, as his 14-plus years on the bench validated. He made that abundantly clear during his confirmation hearings that opened July 30, 1986, by telling the Judiciary Committee they should not expect any change in his jurisprudence. His years on the court were on the record.

His primary opponent, Senator Edward Kennedy, acknowledged this, but also assailed the chief justice nominee in harsh terms, thundering, “By his own record, he is too extreme on race, on women’s rights, separation of church and state, and too extreme to be chief justice.” Kennedy’s assertions set the tone for two weeks of stormy testimony. No one dared to dispute Rehnquist’s powerful intellect or keen understanding of the law. He was just “out of the mainstream” – a standard ploy for any opposition.

After three months of divisive, acrimonious debate in the full Senate, he was confirmed 65-33. The 33 nays were the most votes ever cast against a nominee who won confirmation. Charles Evans Hughes prevailed in 1930 after a vote of 52-26, the previous record.

Scalia had a much easier time, perhaps because the partisan vitriol was exhausted on Rehnquist. The New Republic had earlier written, “A Scalia nomination makes political sense.” And a White House official had exclaimed, “What a political symbol! Nino would be the first Italian-Catholic on the court. He has nine children and everyone likes him. He’s a brilliant conservative. What more do you want?” Moreover, the 50-year-old Scalia was 10 years younger than the other possible candidate, Judge Robert Bork.

Even ideological foes were hard-pressed to challenge Scalia’s meritorious credentials. A product of New York public schools, he tied for first at Xavier High School, graduated at Georgetown University as valedictorian summa cum laude, and at Harvard Law was editor of the law review and a postgraduate fellow. This was followed by the law faculty at University of Virginia and appointments at Georgetown Law, the American Enterprise Institute, Stanford Law, and the University of Chicago Law School.

He sailed through the Judiciary Committee 18-0 and the full Senate 98-0. He served on the Supreme Court until his death last year. Strict constitutional conservatives are still in mourning over his loss.

The upcoming hearing on March 20 is designed to select his replacement. We will all have a ringside seat at what promises to be another Supreme Court soap opera, with gavel-to-gavel TV coverage ad nauseam.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Harding Entered Office on a High Note … then Came the Scandals

warren-g-harding-and-james-m-cox-absolutely-stunning-matched-pair-of-large-1920-rarities
This matched pair of Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox 1920 campaign buttons sold for $6,875 at a November 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Republicans returned to power in the election of 1920 with the victory of Warren G. Harding of Ohio. Isolated even further in the confines of the White House, Woodrow Wilson and family waited out the year and the first two months of 1921. The outgoing president’s condition had stopped improving. He was feeble and mostly occupied with his books and papers, though he now lacked the mental acuity that was key to his greatness.

Late in his term, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and his spirits rose. Remorse yielded to genuine gratification, an indulgence he rarely allowed himself even in the good times. However, Edith Wilson found little diversion from this almost oppressive situation. The world was slowly passing the Wilsons by without a second glance.

The 1920 campaign had been dull and lackluster, with Harding remaining in Ohio on his front porch, greeting thousands of well-wishers and speaking to them informally. The Democrats had tried to make the League of Nations a campaign issue, but Harding’s position was too obscure since he was really only interested in preserving the Senate’s constitutional rights regarding foreign treaties. When voters got to the polls, politicians discovered the campaigns had not mattered. The people were so tired of government restrictions and hardships imposed by the war that they sought a complete change in administrations and a return to “America First.”

Harding and running mate Calvin Coolidge drubbed James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt in both the popular vote and electoral college (404 to 127).

Between the election and inauguration, Harding chose his cabinet, carefully balancing the membership with close political friends and leaders in the Republican Party. It was a blue-chip group that included Charles Evans Hughes (former governor of New York, Supreme Court Justice and presidential candidate in 1916) as Secretary of State; Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover; and millionaire Pittsburg banker Andrew Mellon as Secretary of Treasury. But there were also a few friends, like Albert Fall (Interior) and Harry Daugherty (Attorney General), who would become infamous for corruption.

Friends of Harding and Daugherty flocked from Ohio to Washington for jobs. Headquarters for the “Ohio Gang” was the “Little Green House” on K Street, where government favors and appointments were bought and sold. Evidence of Harding’s knowledge is sketchy; his friends just assumed he would agree in order to please them. But late in 1922, Harding learned of irregularities at the Veterans’ Bureau, where huge amounts of surplus materials were sold far below market value and in turn new supplies were purchased far above fair value, all without competitive bidding.

The head of the agency, Charles R. Forbes – one of Harding’s poker buddies – was allowed to resign, but the attorney for the Bureau committed suicide. This was soon followed by the death of another close Harding friend, Jess Smith, who shared an apartment with Daugherty and was a member of the “Ohio Gang.” Sensing trouble, Harding had asked him to leave Washington, however Smith shot himself to death. But the biggest surprise surfaced after Harding died of a heart attack in San Francisco in August 1923.

Secretary of Interior Fall had allowed two large federal oil fields in Elk Hills, Calif., and Teapot Dome, Wyo., to be opened to private oil companies. He was convicted of bribery ($400,000) and sent to prison. Attorney General Daugherty was brought to trial in 1924 for conspiracy in much of this, but refused to testify to avoid “incriminating the dead president” and it hung the jury.

How much Harding actually knew about the corruption among his friends will never be known. After his death, Mrs. Harding burned all his papers and correspondence, diligently recovering and destroying even personal letters in the possession of other people. Since she had also refused to have Harding’s corpse autopsied in San Francisco, there have always been rumors he was actually poisoned.

Ah, Washington, D.C. – such a small city, but with so many untold mysteries.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].