Appointing Supreme Court Justices Doesn’t Seem That Important Until It’s Time to Do It

In 1968 I took a break from journalism to be a Congressional Fellow, a program that brings journalists and political scientists to Washington for a year to learn something about how Congress operates. I ended up in the Senate office of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, becoming in effect an assistant press secretary.

It was a tumultuous year, with Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy challenging President Lyndon Johnson in the early 1968 primaries, mostly over Vietnam.

On March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced he would not run for reelection as the McCarthy and Kennedy challenges gained momentum. But McCarthy, an iconoclast politician, couldn’t build a broad enough coalition, and Kennedy was assassinated in June, allowing Humphrey to win the Democratic nomination to oppose Republican candidate Richard Nixon.

The streets were full of Vietnam protesters during the Chicago convention that nominated Humphrey, and the protests continued during the fall campaign as Humphrey was seen as another LBJ. On September 30, Humphrey broke with President Johnson over Vietnam but the protests continued.

At a fall campaign stop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was in a crowd of mostly young people protesting the war and barely allowing Humphrey to speak. I was standing with a group of Harvard students and reminded them that what was at stake in the election was not just foreign policy but the power of the president to shape the future of the Supreme Court. They were not interested in something that seemed that far in the future.

Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey in November and went on to appoint Warren Burger to replace Earl Warren as chief justice, and then to appoint three more Supreme Court justices—Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist, who replaced Burger as chief justice in 1986 and served until 2005.

Appointing Supreme Court justices is one of the most important and lasting things a president does but the issue rarely arises in presidential campaigns—to the Harvard students, and to voters, it seems too far into the future.

Then the time comes when those the president names to the Supreme Court shape the country for a generation.

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