Given the “facts” that have been bandied about in the media since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death concerning presidential election year nominations and confirmations to the Supreme Court, I asked Anthony Gruzdis, our crack research assistant for the Center for Constitutional Studies, to do an exhaustive study of the subject, and here, in summary, are the most relevant facts.
It turns out that most election year resignations and deaths were in the pre-modern (pre-1900) era—many in the era before today’s two major parties were established. And the pre-1900 picture is further complicated by several multiple nominations and confirmations of the same person, both before and after the election, so it’s not until the modern era that we get a picture that is more clearly relevant and instructive for the current situation.
Looking at the history of the matter since 1900, then, until last week only four vacancies have occurred during an election year, two in 1916, one in 1932, and one in 1956. (Three more occurred during the previous year, in 1911, 1939, and 1987; the nominees in each case were confirmed, respectively, in February, early January, and early February of the election year that followed.) The first three were filled when the president’s party also controlled the Senate, so that’s not the situation we have now. And when Justice Sherman Minton resigned for health reasons on October 15, 1956, President Eisenhower made a recess appointment that same day of William J. Brennan, Jr., nominating him for the seat on January 14, 1957, for which Brennan was confirmed by voice vote on March 19, 1957. In 1956 the Senate was closely divided with 48 Democrats, 47 Republicans, and 1 Independent. In 1957 it was also closely divided with 49 Democrats and 47 Republicans, although in both cases the Southern Democrats often voted with the Republicans.