Scott Brown and the Future Supreme Court Vacancy

Josh Blackman and Lyle Denniston offer some thoughts on the effect of Scott Brown’s Massachusetts earthquake on the looming retirement of – and the nomination of a replacement for – Justice John Paul Stevens.  Josh and Lyle both latch onto the idea that Brown’s providing the 41st vote to sustain a potential Republican filibuster could cause President Obama to nominate someone more moderate than would be the case if the Democrats had maintained their super-majority.  Lyle goes on to speculate that both Obama and Senate Democrats, looking to this fall’s election, will generally want to tack right in the face of an emboldened GOP and impatient electorate.

I think this sort of analysis is a misapplication of otherwise correct political analysis to the sui generis event that is a Supreme Court nomination.  Yes, Scott Brown’s presence in the Kennedy people’s seat will change the dynamic of the health care debate, definitively kill cap and trade, otherwise alter the Democrats’ legislative agenda – and even affect lower court nominees.  But I’m not so sure it will affect Obama’s calculus in picking a new Supreme Court justice.

Here’s why:  Despite having been a constitutional law professor – whom I did not have when I was in law school, though I passed him in the halls a few times – the president has not really tried to advance his ideological agenda in the courts.  It’s bizarre, really, that judicial nominations have not at all been a priority for this administration given that few people pay attention to lower court appointments and this could have been a place where the president could have thrown some bones to his base at little political cost (and certainly far less cost than the rest of his domestic agenda).

Moreover, based on the Sotomayor nomination, we see that when it comes to the Supreme Court, Obama is much more about affirmative action than appointing either the best-qualified Democrats or the most ”progressive” ones (or both, to provide a counterweight to Justice Scalia).  (Note that Sotomayor at the time of her nomination was nowhere near the best or most left-wing member of the federal judiciary.)  Even with a filibuster-proof Senate majority, we would have been unlikely to see a Cass Sunstein or Harold Koh pick – though each took not insignificant heat and delay in being confirmed to regulatory czar and head State Department lawyer, respectively.  (And Larry Tribe is too old.)

With Sonia Sotomayor, Obama hit the “twofer” of a woman and a Hispanic (the first unless you count Benjamin Cardozo).  With the Stevens replacement, women and minorities are still slightly preferred but the key “diversity” quota to fill is “non-judge” – and, per the above, a non-controversial one on whom the president won’t have to spend much political capital.

And so, while the prohibitive favorite – solicitor general Elana Kagan (and a woman) – is no surprise, you heard it here first that the other likely nominees, in no particular order, are Janet Napolitano (DHS secretary, woman), Deval Patrick (Massachusetts governor, black), Jennifer Granholm (Michigan governor, woman), Kathleen Sullivan (former Stanford dean, lesbian), Amy Klobuchar (senator, woman), and Akhil Amar (Yale law professor, South Asian).  I’ll comment on their relative merits in future posts, but nobody on that list is both a radical and an intellectual heavyweight, and the list has not changed with Scott Brown’s election (though the indirect spotlight during the campaign on Gov. Patrick’s unpopularity might have hurt his chances).