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Chief Justice: Democrats Need Not Apply

July 26, 2013

In the last 60 years, we’ve had eleven presidents – six Republican and five Democrat. During that time, we have had four chief justices of the Supreme Court – and every one was appointed by a Republican president. Over that stretch, four of the six Republican presidents had the opportunity to name a chief justice, but none of the five Democratic presidents had that opportunity.

Earl Warren began the Republican run when he succeeded the undistinguished and short-lived Fred Vinson on October 2, 1953. Warren served for 16 years, succeeded by Warren Burger who served for 17 years, succeeded by William Rehnquist who served for 19 years, succeeded by John Roberts who has served so far for eight years.

Democratic Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and Obama all appointed Supreme Court justices, but not the chief justice. President Carter holds the distinction of being the only American president to serve a full four-year term and make no Supreme Court nominations at all. (That man just could not catch a break.)

Republican Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush all appointed chief justices; Presidents Ford and George H. W. Bush did not.

In fairness, it has to be pointed out that Eisenhower’s chief justice appointee, Earl Warren, is known to history as perhaps our most liberal chief justice. After Ike retired, he referred to his appointment of Warren and similarly liberal Associate Justice William Brennan, as two of his biggest mistakes as president.

That regret was revisionist history. Eisenhower knew full well that Warren was a liberal when he picked him – Eisenhower selected Warren explicitly to appeal to liberal interests. Some speculate that Eisenhower put Warren on the court to remove him as a potential rival for the 1956 Republican nomination – Warren was the popular governor of California, he had run for vice president with Thomas Dewey in 1948, and he had stood at the 1952 Republican nominating convention as a “favorite son,” a campaign practice that was common at that time. (Eisenhower also knew what he was getting when he appointed Brennan – Ike’s advisers thought that appointing a Catholic Democrat from the northeast to the Court would help with the 1956 re-election campaign.)

Still, Earl Warren, like Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts, was a Republican, appointed to be chief justice by a Republican. And that means that there has been no chief justice appointed by a Democratic president in my lifetime, or in the lifetime of most Americans.

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