Restoring a constitutional role: Changing Senate influence on United States Supreme Court nominations

Date of Completion

January 2000


History, United States|Political Science, General




This dissertation examines Senate influence on United States Supreme Court nominations during five eras to determine when it effectively countered presidential influence over the Court—A role intended by the Framers. Each era (1789–1895, 1896–1910, 1911–1945, 1946–1968, and 1969–1994) corresponds to the institutional and constitutional changes Congress went through, particularly during the 20th century. While rejection rates were highest in the first (1789–1895) and fifth (1969–1994) eras, they alone do not provide an accurate measure of Senate influence. ^ Through quantitative and descriptive analyses, this work determines the effects that the “tools” of presidential influence (the president's status, the nominee's characteristics, and “the institutional presidency”) and “markers” of Senate influence (party, ideology, divided control, time to review a nomination, type of action, the Senate Judiciary Committee, floor debates, and senatorial courtesy) had on Senate voting and subsequent presidential selections. The dependent variable includes each senator's vote on Supreme Court nominations where roll call votes were taken. Analyses using the outcomes of all 149 nominations as the dependent variable fail to determine the effects these above-mentioned variables had on each senator. This work determines whether party alone, or any of these factors, affected a senator's vote by controlling for it when measuring for the effects of each variable. ^ Overall findings challenge claims that presidents were more successful during the 20th century. While presidents had more institutional machinery for managing their nominations by the late 20th century, Senate influence manifested itself in different ways (including in the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor) and parallels can be drawn to the 18th–19th centuries. Institutionally weakened presidents were most likely to face resistance from their partisan opponents during one period within the 1789–1895 era (1829–1861) and in the 1969–1994 era. Like the formative period of the 1789–1895 era (1789–1808), nominees with questionable judicial philosophies and their nominating presidents (including institutionally strong ones) faced significant ideological resistance from party members and opponents during most of the 20th century. At times, this resistance influenced subsequent presidential selections. Institutional and constitutional change fortified such resistance and helped to restore the Senate's constitutional role in the appointments process. ^