The Wilson Quarterly

Presidents Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush had similar goals in appointing Harry Blackmun and John Roberts to the U. S. Supreme Court more than 30 years apart: to move the Court away from what they considered egregious ­liberalism.

Their choices were Republican sons of the Midwest and brilliant graduates of Harvard College and Harvard Law School with almost unassailable legal credentials.

But Blackmun traversed the ideological spectrum to become the Court’s most liberal member by the time he retired in 1994. Is a similar ideological journey in store for Chief Justice ­Roberts?

Substantial recent scholarship suggests that the answer is a resounding no, writes Linda Greenhouse, the Supreme Court corres­pondent for The New York Times. ­Modern-era Republican-­appointed justices who came from outside Washington have drifted to the left on the bench, while those who were already Washington insiders with service in the executive branch when they were ap­pointed to the Court stayed put on the ­liberal-­conservative spectrum. Chief Justice Earl Warren, considered a conservative when he moved from California after his appointment by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, issued some of the landmark liberal rulings of the 20th century, including Brown v. Board of Education (1954). By contrast, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, elevated to the Court from service at high levels in the Justice Department, never veered from his conservative ­views.

Why? A move in ­midlife to such a prominent position in Washington, an unfamiliar place and culture, is a profound personal disruption that fosters receptivity to new ideas and influences, Green­house thinks. Working in the executive branch in Washington, by con­trast, is the “product of a process of self­selection and political ­dues ­paying that both reinforces and demonstrates loyalty to a set of principles.”

So ideological drift is unlikely to infect the current chief justice, who is a veteran of the Justice Department, the White House, Washington private practice, and the District of Columbia federal courts, no matter how long he ­serves.

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The Source: “A Tale of Two Justices” by Linda Greenhouse, in Green Bag, Autumn 2007. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/John Marino

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