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 Nixon’s Resignation Restored Faith in the System

Richard Nixon photograph signing Burger's Supreme Court appointment
A photograph inscribed by Richard Nixon to Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger sold for nearly $6,000 at an April 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In mid-1971, The New York Times began publishing excerpts from a secret Defense Department study, “History of U.S. Decision Making Process on Vietnam Policy.” The study had been leaked to the press by former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who, joined by his 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, photocopied its 7,000 pages, snipping off the words “Top Secret” from each page.

Better known to the public as the Pentagon Papers, it became a best-seller in book form. While few could understand the arcane language, they knew what it revealed: The government had been lying to them about both the motives and its conduct in Vietnam. By playing David to the government’s Goliath, Ellsberg became a kind of folk hero to the growing anti-war movement. It seemed the only thing the left and right could agree on was their distrust of their own government.

Still, by 1973, the preoccupation was not the war or the sad economy, but a constitutional crisis that carried the name of a Washington luxury apartment and office … Watergate.

When the break-in at the Watergate offices of the DNC was first revealed in June 1972, Presidential Press Secretary Ron Ziegler described it as a “third-rate burglary,” hardly worth reporters’ attention, except for two at The Washington Post. Over the next two years, as the tentacles of a very complicated story reached higher and higher, the president would try to avoid involvement by throwing subordinates overboard, but the dirty water reached the highest office in the land.

Richard Nixon had an amazing public career, starting with Congress in the late 1940s; his pursuit of Alger Hiss; eight years as Dwight Eisenhower’s VP; his own run for the presidency in 1960; and then the dramatic comeback to the Oval Office in 1968 … only to face an ignominious departure six years later.

Nixon compiled a 28-year run at or near the center of the world’s stage, but on the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, the 37th president of the United States – his eyes red, his voice shaky – addressed his staff in the East Room, imploring them to never “hate those who hate.” Then he and his wife Pat exited the mansion doors, walked on a fresh red carpet and disappeared into the helicopter Army One.

Nixon was a private citizen seated in a California-bound 707 somewhere over Missouri when Vice President Gerald Ford recited the oath of office as the new president. Chief Justice Warren Burger turned to Senate Leader Hugh Scott. “It worked, Hugh,” he said of the system. “Thank God it worked.”

With a swiftness that restored faith in the system, the forced exit of one leader and the entrance of his successor had been carried off smoothly.

P.S. For movie fans, the 1976 film All the President’s Men, with Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards, is well worth another viewing.

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].