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Judicial confirmation, Federal judicial appointments


Constitutional Law | Judges | Law and Politics


Recent years have seen intense conflicts over federal judicial appointments, culminating in Senate Republicans' 2016 refusal to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Senate Democrats' 2017 filibuster of Neil Gorsuch's nomination to the same seat, and Republicans' triggering of the "nuclear option" to confirm Gorsuch. At every stage in this process, political actors on both sides have accused one another of "unprecedented" behavior.

This Essay, written for the 2017 Supreme Court issue of the Harvard Law Review, examines these disputes and their histories, with an eye toward understanding the ways in which discussions of (un)precedentedness work in constitutional politics.

Part I examines recent conflicts in judicial appointments, beginning in the George W. Bush administration and running through the 2017 elimination of the filibuster for all nominees. It focuses on the discourse surrounding these reforms, noting that at every turn, accusations of "unprecedented" behavior have flown in all directions and have served as justifications for countermeasures, which are in turn characterized as unprecedented. Part II then reconstructs two pasts — two precedential pathways — for recent events, one drawing on the history of legislative obstruction and the other on the history of confirmation politics. The purpose of these historical narratives is not to adjudicate particular claims of unprecedentedness but rather to highlight the ways in which any claim of (un)precedentedness involves particular, contestable constructions of the past. The Essay concludes with some thoughts about why we might prefer some available pasts to others.