With news coming out this afternoon that Senate Democrats officially have enough votes to filibuster the Supreme Court appointment of Judge Gorsuch, I thought I’d share here more information about Abe Fortas, whose nomination to be elevated to the position of Chief Justice, following Chief Justice Earl Warren’s retirement, was filibustered in the Senate.
In June 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren informed President Lyndon Johnson that he planned to retire from the Supreme Court. Concern that Richard Nixon might win the presidency later that year and get to choose his successor dictated Warren’s timing.
In the final months of his presidency, Johnson shared Warren’s concerns about Nixon and welcomed the opportunity to add his third appointee to the Court. To replace Warren, he nominated Associate Justice Abe Fortas, his longtime confidant. Anticipating Senate concerns about the prospective chief justice’s liberal opinions, Johnson simultaneously declared his intention to fill the vacancy created by Fortas’ elevation with Appeals Court Judge Homer Thornberry. The president believed that Thornberry, a Texan, would mollify skeptical southern senators.
A seasoned Senate vote-counter, Johnson concluded that despite filibuster warnings he just barely had the support to confirm Fortas. The president took encouragement from indications that his former Senate mentor, Richard Russell, and Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen would support Fortas, whose legal brilliance both men respected.
The president soon lost Russell’s support, however, because of administration delays in nominating his candidate to a Georgia federal judgeship. Johnson urged Senate leaders to waste no time in convening Fortas’ confirmation hearings. Responding to staff assurances of Dirksen’s continued support, Johnson told an aide, “Just take my word for it. I know [Dirksen]. I know the Senate. If they get this thing drug out very long, we’re going to get beat. Dirksen will leave us.”
Fortas became the first sitting associate justice, nominated for chief justice, to testify at his own confirmation hearing. Those hearings reinforced what some senators already knew about the nominee. As a sitting justice, he regularly attended White House staff meetings; he briefed the president on secret Court deliberations; and, on behalf of the president, he pressured senators who opposed the war in Vietnam. When the Judiciary Committee revealed that Fortas received a privately funded stipend, equivalent to 40 percent of his Court salary, to teach an American University summer course, Dirksen and others withdrew their support. Although the committee recommended confirmation, floor consideration sparked a filibuster.
On October 1, 1968, the Senate failed to invoke cloture. Johnson then withdrew the nomination, privately observing that if he had another term, “the Fortas appointment would have been different.”