On the day President George H.W. Bush picked David Souter for the Supreme Court, I called two politically active friends in New Hampshire, a moderate Republican and a moderate Democrat.
Both applauded the choice. They knew Souter and saw him as judicially sound, a centrist and no ideologue. I always wondered why this surprised the Bush White House and other Republicans eager for a conservative justice.
That’s unlikely to repeat itself. Every White House vets its choices far more intensively, and interest groups on both ends of the spectrum quickly examine nominees and judge their fitness.
Indeed, Souter had not yet confirmed his retirement when conservative groups began assailing potential Obama appointees, from ideology to temperament. The White House, too, was prepared; top aides had already started discussing potential choices.
This increased scrutiny, and the increased role of ideology, make it less likely a future nominee will surprise the president who nominated him or her, as did Souter and a number of others, most famously the late Chief Justice Earl
Dwight Eisenhower fulfilled a political promise by naming Warren with minimal scrutiny. Detailed background checks of his California activities would have shown his underlying liberal instincts.
Since the 1960s, however, most Supreme Court confirmation fights have focused on ideology. In some, the ostensible issues were cover for the real struggle.
Conservatives cited cronyism and financial matters in opposing Lyndon Johnson’s effort to elevate his old friend, Abe Fortas, to succeed Warren as chief justice. Fortas later left the court after accepting a retainer from the family foundation of a financier under criminal investigation. But his nomination really failed because conservatives in both parties opposed a liberal justice nominated by a lame-duck liberal president.
Although liberals fought two conservative Richard Nixon choices because of conflicts of interest and having too many decisions overturned on appeal, those really were ideological fights, too. Both parties then were broad coalitions, so votes didn’t follow strict party lines.
Things are different now. The 22 senators who opposed President George W. Bush’s nomination of John Roberts and all but one of the 42 who opposed Samuel Alito were Democrats — including, in each case, Sen. Barack Obama.
In those fights, liberal interest groups pressured Democratic senators against the nominees. Now, conservative groups are spurring Republican opposition to whomever Obama picks, even though a liberal justice wouldn’t change the current court balance.
Given that history, it’s a safe bet that most who vote against Obama’s nominee will be Republicans. The only question: How many?
One interesting aspect will be whether Republicans force the Democratic majority to muster 60 votes for any nominee by pledging to filibuster, which they threatened this year when GOP senators failed to persuade Obama to re-submit some Bush judicial nominees blocked by Democrats.
Ironically, when Republicans recently held the White House and Senate, many GOP senators who may play a role this year mounted an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to exempt judicial nominees from the 60-vote rule.
Among those who denounced Democratic filibusters against Bush nominees were Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Judiciary Committee’s new ranking Republican; committee members Orrin Hatch of Utah and Charles Grassley of Iowa; and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the panel’s former ranking Republican who just switched parties.
Any filibuster against an Obama nominee probably wouldn’t succeed, since the Senate probably would have 60 Democrats by then, and not all Republicans necessarily would join in.
Still, judicial nominations have become part of the ongoing partisan warfare in Washington — and Obama, as a senator, has taken sides. So it seems inevitable that his nominee will provoke a partisan fight, though it may merely be prologue to a far fiercer one if he ever has to replace one of the court’s conservatives.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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