Blogs > Cliopatria > So Nobody Ever Filibustered a Supreme Court Nomination Before?

Mar 18, 2005 1:09 pm

So Nobody Ever Filibustered a Supreme Court Nomination Before?

Charles Babington, in the Wa Po (3-18-05):

Filibuster Precedent? Democrats Point to '68 and Fortas
But GOP Senators Cite Differences in Current Effort to Bar Votes on

The Senate was launched on a full-blown filibuster, with one South Carolina senator consuming time by reading "long passages of James F. Byrnes's memoirs in a thick Southern accent," according to a newspaper account.

That four-day talkathon in September 1968 has largely been forgotten. But some Senate Democrats want to bring it back to mind to counter a key Republican attack against their stalling tactics that have blocked confirmation votes for several of President Bush's most conservative judicial nominees. The GOP claim, asserted in speeches, articles and interviews, is that filibusters against judicial nominees are unprecedented.

Fortas's nomination as chief justice went down in defeat when the Senate voted against halting a filibuster. That situation is being recalled in the dispute over Democratic efforts to filibuster some judicial nominations. (AP Photos)

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told his panel this month that the judicial battles have escalated, "with the filibuster being employed for the first time in the history of the Republic." Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said in a Senate speech last week, "The crisis created by the unprecedented use of filibusters to defeat judicial nominations must be solved."

Such claims, however, are at odds with the record of the successful 1968 GOP-led filibuster against President Lyndon B. Johnson's nomination of Abe Fortas to be chief justice of the United States. "Fortas Debate Opens with a Filibuster," a Page One Washington Post story declared on Sept. 26, 1968. It said, "A full-dress Republican-led filibuster broke out in the Senate yesterday against a motion to call up the nomination of Justice Abe Fortas for Chief Justice."

A New York Times story that day said Fortas's opponents "began a historic filibuster today." As the debate dragged on for four days, news accounts consistently described it as a full-blown filibuster intended to prevent Fortas's confirmation from reaching the floor, where a simple-majority vote would have decided the question. The required number of votes to halt a filibuster then was 67; filibusters can be halted now by 60 of the Senate's 100 members.

The Senate had confirmed Fortas in 1965 as a Supreme Court associate justice. But Johnson's effort to elevate him to chief justice three years later, when Earl Warren announced his plans to vacate the post, ran into stiff opposition from a core of GOP senators and several conservative southern Democrats.

Some current Republican leaders -- citing comments by then-Sen. Robert P. Griffin (R-Mich.), who led the Fortas opposition -- say the 1968 debate was not a true filibuster. But there is little in the record to support that assertion. The Washington Post reported on Oct. 2, 1968: "In a precedent-shattering rebuff to the Administration, the Senate yesterday refused to cut off the filibuster against consideration of Abe Fortas to be Chief Justice." The Congressional Quarterly Almanac reported in 1968: "The effort to block the confirmation by means of a filibuster was without precedent in the history of the Senate." The Senate Web site's account of the episode is headlined "Filibuster Derails Supreme Court Appointment." ...

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