The 5 most disastrous Supreme Court nominees

Elena Kagan, beware: Cronyism, drug use, and racism are just a few of the charges that have derailed previous nominees

Harriet Miers: George W. Bush's "crony" judge?
(Image credit: Creative Commons)

As Elena Kagan is witnessing first-hand, it's a time-honored tradition for critics to undermine a Supreme Court nominee by drawing unflattering comparisons to failed nominees of the past. Kagan, a former Harvard Law dean, generally enjoys broad support and seems likely to be confirmed as President Obama intends — unlike these five ill-starred judicial hopefuls, to whom, in some cases, she's already being compared:

1. "My Little Crony"

Who: Harriet Miers, nominated by George W. Bush in 2005

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Why was she a disaster? The nomination of Miers, a close friend of the Bush family, prompted charges of cronyism from Democrats and Republicans alike. She had never acted as a judge, and Senators said she gave "incomplete to insulting" written answers to their questions about her Constitutional views. The negative perceptions of Miers crystallized in a widely circulated cartoon portraying her as Bush's wide-eyed toy — a "my little crony."

What happened next: After three weeks, Bush withdrew his nomination. Miers resigned as White House counsel in 2007.

2. The highest judge in the land

Who: Douglas Ginsburg, nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1987

Why was he a disaster? The U.S. Court of Appeals judge withdrew himself from consideration after media reports revealed he'd smoked marijuana with his students during his stint as a Harvard Law School professor.

What happened next: Ginsburg's pot-smoking past led several politicians — including Al Gore and Newt Gingrich — to come clean about youthful drug use. Ginsburg remains a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court.

3. The racist rookie

Who: G. Harrold Carswell, nominated by Richard Nixon in 1970

Why was he a disaster? The Senate rejected Nixon's choice primarily on the grounds of inexperience — but Carswell's record of "vigorous belief in the priniciples of White Supremacy" certainly didn't help. Attempting to marshall a defense for the nominee, GOP Senator Roman Hruska tried to put a positive spin on Carswell's self-evident shortcomings: "There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers," he said. "They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?"

What happened next: Carswell's career ended in scandal. After an unsuccessful attempt to enter politics, he was arrested and convicted of battery in 1976 for making advances on an undercover cop in a Florida men's room.

4. A sex-crazed sexagenarian

Who: Lucius Q.C. Lamar, nominated by Grover Cleveland in 1887

Why was he a disaster? Critics charged that Lamar, the first former-Confederate nominee, was much too old for the job (he was 62, at a time when U.S. life expectancy was less than 50). He was also dogged by accusations of sexual misconduct, including the charge that he gave a woman a government job in exchange for sex.

What happened next: In today's world, Lamar wouldn't have stood a chance — but, under 19th century norms, he was confirmed for the job, and served for five years as an associate justice before his death in 1893.

5. The three-time loser

Who: Reuben H. Walworth, nominated by John Tyler on three separate occasions in 1844

Why was it a disaster? "The Senate reacted with disdain" to Tyler's three-time choice, never once granting Walworth a proper hearing. Tyler, who assumed office after William Henry Harrison's death and enjoyed almost no political support in Congress, finally gave up.

What happened next: Walworth's luck didn't improve — he soon lost his job as chancellor of New York, and failed to win election as governor of the state in 1848. Consolation prize: Wisconsin named a county after him.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.