Who Holds the Record for the Most Failed Supreme Court Justice Nominees?
On February 13, the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia left a vacant seat on the bench. Though much has been made of the Republicans threatening to refuse any and all of President Obama’s nominations, it wouldn’t be the first time in history that opposing members of the Senate have profoundly stalled. Tenth U.S. President John Tyler currently holds the record for the most failed nominations, with eight nominations rejected or withdrawn in a span of just 15 months.
The situation then was not unlike the one we face today. Justice Smith Thompson died on December 18, 1843, with the expiration date on Tyler’s presidency looming. The controlling party of the Senate, the Whigs, had high hopes that Whig and former Secretary of State Henry Clay would be elected president. Clay would name a Supreme Court justice more amenable to their causes, of course, so the Senate majority did everything they could to block Tyler’s nominations. But in addition to that familiar scenario, Tyler—dubbed “His Accidency” because he was the first president to take office due to the death of his predecessor—no longer had the support of his own party. All of that adds up to the most drawn-out and failed nomination process in the history of American politics.
First, Tyler put forth his Secretary of the Treasury, John C. Spencer. Blocked. He tried Chancellor of New York Reuben H. Walworth as well as lawyer and jurist Edward King; Withdrawn and blocked, respectively. John Read, who would go on to become the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, was nominated by Tyler but later withdrawn before the Senate could act.
Then, associate justice Henry Baldwin died in April 1844, leaving a second vacancy on the Supreme Court. Tyler tried Spencer, Walworth (twice), and King again, but all of them were withdrawn or rejected.
During Tyler’s final month in office, the Senate finally approved Democrat Samuel Nelson to fill Smith Thompson’s spot. It took them another 27 months to fill Baldwin’s position, the longest vacancy in history. (So far.)