Democrats chose Obama because he promised change from eight years of Bush. This includes having liberal nominees for the federal courts. But many articles have portrayed Obama as seeking to avoid controversy with his choice for the Court.
But the judicial nomination process -- especially with respect to the Supreme Court -- is inherently a political battleground. Republicans know this, and so do Democrats. The political parties have known this from the start of the nation's history.
Judicial Appointments Have Always Been "Political"
Marbury v. Madison is the first case that law students read in about 99% of required constitutional law courses. The legal issue was fairly simple -- the plaintiff Marbury sought the delivery of his commission to sit as a justice of the peace of the District of Columbia. Madison, the Secretary of State, refused to deliver it at the request of newly elected President Jefferson.
The broader background facts, however, demonstrate that esteemed early Americans viewed courts in stark political terms. Before Jefferson took office, the lame duck Adams administration passed a law augmenting the size of the federal judiciary and rushed to fill the additional slots with Federalist Party nominees. Time ran out before some of the appointees could get their commissions, which they needed to sit as judges.
After Jefferson took office, he and the new Congress repealed the statute that enlarged the size of the judiciary and withheld the undelivered commissions because he did not want the Federalist Party nominees to sit in judgment of the Democratic-Republicans. In order to evade Supreme Court review, Jefferson shut down the Court for over one year. Despite this behavior, Jefferson is a exalted figure in United States history. Today, by contrast, politicians feign outrage over ideology -- that is, if their own party is not making the judicial nomination.
Politics Influences Judicial Appointments Today, and the Constitution Anticipates This Situation
Hearing the parties disingenuously assert that ideology should not play a role in the selection of judicial candidates is laughable. If both parties followed their insincere anti-ideology rhetoric, then Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts would not sit on the bench, nor would Ginsburg and Breyer. Stevens and Souter are a bit more complicated. The normal script, however, describes both of these justices as Republican "errors," which supports my thesis that presidents pick candidates based on ideology.
If the Framers of the constitution did not want the process to have a political dimension, then they would not have allowed the President to make nominations and the Senate to confirm the appointments. The tremendous role of the President and Senate ensure that politics will continue to influence judicial selections.
Ideology Is Not Inconsistent With "Judging"
To say that a judge is "ideological" does not mean that a he or she lacks "judgment" or that he or she does not follow doctrine or principle. Conservatives have described Sotomayor as an ideologue, despite that fact that she has ruled against numerous civil rights plaintiffs and against the Center for Reproductive Rights in a case where she steered very closely to pre-existing precedent.
The Republicans have constructed their list of judicial nominee faux pas, and "gay marriage" has joined abortion as a potential judge-slayer. Articles in both the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times outline the conservative (idelogical) strategy. For example, Republicans hope to go after Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Wood, if Obama picks her to replace Souter, because she dissented in a pair of cases in which the circuit upheld state bans on partial-birth abortion. But until recently, Woods' dissenting view mirrored Supreme Court doctrine on the issue, that is, until the five conservative justices -- minus O'Connor and plus Alito -- decided that Congress could ban the procedure. The majority's effort to distinguish precedent that undermined its conclusion was strained. Basically the contrary ruling happened because O'Connor left the Court, Alito replaced her, and Kennedy is squeamish about the procedure [Note: I am squeamish about medicine, which is exactly why I went to law school.].
Change Is Not More of the Same
From the very beginning of the Democratic primaries, I disagreed with my liberal colleagues who described Obama as a leftist dream come true. I suspect that many of them are beginning to see the light at this point.
Progressives, however, can push presidents to do things that they otherwise might not do. This is how broad political change has occurred historically. Unless liberals remind Obama that we did not vote for him in order for him to capitulate to Republicans or adhere to his own right-leaning instincts, then he will have no incentive to stop doing so.
Related Readings on Dissenting Justice:
Strikingly Similar: Comparing Sotomayor's Views on Sex and Race With Statements By O'Connor, Ginsburg, Scalia and Kennedy
Scalia v. Sotomayor: The Use of Gender-Coded Language to Evaluate a Judge's "Temperament"
Rosen Defends His Misreading of a Judicial Footnote: Says Judge Winter's Writing "Not a Model of Clarity"
Earth to Orrin Hatch: Even Conservative Judges Make Policy!
Talking Points on Souter Replacement?
Hatchet Job: Jeffrey Rosen's Utterly Bankrupt Analysis of Judge Sonia Sotomayor