A Nixon Court: How Supreme?

This post first appeared in The Prices Do DC

Nowhere is the legacy of a president more lasting than in his (and someday her) power to appoint Supreme Court justices who serve for life. And no one was more cognizant of that fact than Richard Nixon, who appointed 4 justices in his time in office to the 9-member court. In fact Nixon called his judicial appointments “the most constructive and far reaching impact of my presidency.”

This afternoon, The Richard Nixon Foundation and the National Archives presented the program Nixon and the Court: The Story Behind President Nixon’s Supreme Court Appointments, another in a series of the 37th president’s legacy forums.

Five distinguished panelists, all prominent political and legal players during the Nixon era, took part in the forum at the Archives. Fred Fielding, who served as counsel to Nixon, moderated. Panelists were headed by former Nixon speechwriter, 3-time presidential candidate, and uber conservative Pat Buchanan. Buchanan was joined by Robert Blakey, former Chief Counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee and later of the House Select Committee on Assassinations; Wallace Johnson, former Associate Deputy Attorney General; and Earl Silbert, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney.

The mid 1960s, when ex-Vice President Nixon re-emerged politically, were turbulent times. The Vietnam War. Racial unrest. The Black power movement and the Black Panthers. Student riots. Police engaged in street war with protesters on almost a daily basis. “It seemed like the country was coming apart,” Buchanan said. “For Middle America and the Silent Majority, it seemed the country they grew up in was disintegrating before their very eyes.”

Many conservatives blamed Supreme Court leader Earl Warren and his court for issuing rulings that, according to Buchanan read “their own (liberal) ideology into the Constitution.” Nixon made his view of restoration of law and order a cornerstone of his campaign. And, once elected, he used his power to appoint philosophical conservatives to the nation’s highest court, including then 47-year-old William Rehnquist, who ended up serving 33 years, several of those as Chief Justice. 

The panelists agreed that the legal world is constantly trying to the balance the rights of the individual with public safety. Johnson said Nixon’s appointments “moved the pendulum.” According to Johnson, it was “a major, major triumph” for the president, who, ironically given his law and order stance, was driven from office by the outgrowths from the Watergate break-in.

“There was a perception (when Nixon took office) that things were tilting more toward protecting the rights of individuals who had been accused or indicted than public safety,” Silbert, agreeing,  said. “Some thought it was leading to an explosion in crime. I could not myself make that connection, but many did.”                                                                                                                                                      

Blakey contended that the Nixon era was “the golden age of Federal Criminal Law.” This was especially true in the area of organized crime. For example, Blakely said when Nixon took office, there were about 5,000 members of the Mafia distributed between 22 families nationwide. Today, that estimated number stands at about only 1,500 members with only 2 strong families both based in New York. “Nixon gets a bad rap,” Blakely, now a law professor at Notre Dame, said. “But he said ‘go get the crooks.'”

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