There is one group of people who aren’t fans of modern-day Supreme Court confirmation hearings: The justices themselves.
Most recently, at an event in February, at New York University School of Law, Justice Sonia Sotomayor worried that the current intensely partisan atmosphere of hearings will impact the reputation of the Court.
She noted that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served as a lawyer to the ACLU, was confirmed 96-3 and Justice Stephen Breyer, who worked at one point for the liberal lion Sen. Ted Kennedy, was confirmed 87-9. But that has changed in recent years, and the hearings themselves have become partisan fests justices feel are simply to be endured.
“Surely it has an effect on the appearance of the impartiality of the court,” Sotomayor (confirmed 68-31) said. “We are far from the times when Supreme Court nominees would receive nearly unanimous approval even in divided Congresses and, the more partisan the voting becomes, the less belief that the public is likely to have that congress is making a merits based or qualifications based assessment of judicial nominees.”
“Is it going to affect directly the court’s functioning?” she asked. “It could.”
During an event at Notre Dame in 2021, Justice Clarence Thomas — who was confirmed only after contentious hearings when Anita Hill made sexual harassment claims against him which he denied — said he thinks the hearings have changed because judges are failing to respect their boundaries on the court.
“I think a lot of the pressure on the nomination and the selection process is because of that,” he said. “I think the court was thought to be the least dangerous branch and we may have become the most dangerous; and I think that is problematic and hence the craziness during my confirmation was one of the results of that. It was absolutely about abortion — a matter I had not thought deeply about at the time.”
Before she died, Ginsburg would often lament the current state of play. In 2017 at the Rathbun Lecture on a Meaningful Life, she said that a senator who had supported her back in 1993 “today wouldn’t touch me with a 10-foot pole”.
“I wish there were a way I could wave a magic wand and put it back when people were respectful of each other and the Congress was working for the good of the country and not just along party lines,” Ginsburg said.