How Supreme Court Justices Align With the Presidents Who Picked Them

Whenever a president nominates a Supreme Court justice, you can guarantee a backlash from their political opponents.

The president will be accused of picking a patsy or an apparatchik who'll put ideology above objectivity, basing their legal decisions not on what's constitutionally correct but what they personally believe to be morally, politically, or religiously right.

And that's exactly what has happened with President Donald Trump's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, the 53-year-old Court of Appeals judge he picked to replace the retiring Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Kavanaugh's critics believe he will seek to use the Supreme Court to advance conservative interests, such as the overturning of the landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade, which gave American women the legal right to abortion. But Kavanaugh has promised to "keep an open mind."

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A flag flies outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C. Would Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh use the Supreme Court to advance a conservative agenda? Eric Thayer/Getty Images

"What matters is not a judge's political views, but whether they can set aside those views to do what the law and Constitution require," Trump said in a speech unveiling Kavanaugh as his nominee. "I am pleased to say that I have found, without doubt, such a person."

"I revere the Constitution," Kavanaugh said after Trump's announcement. "I believe an independent judiciary is the crown jewel of our constitutional republic. If confirmed by the Senate, I will keep an open mind in every case. And I will always strive to preserve the Constitution of the United States and the American rule of law."

But what does the data tell us about how the judicial actions of nominees align with the politics of the presidents who pick them? It, perhaps, shouldn't surprise us that there is a strong correlation between Republican presidents and Supreme Court justices who vote conservatively—and the reverse.

This chart from Statista puts a percentage on the votes that can be coded as conservative for the past 12 justices, excluding Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by Trump in 2017 to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who had died.

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The top six justices who voted conservatively were all appointed by Republican presidents and have percentages higher than 50 percent. Of the bottom six, all below 50 percent when measured by the conservativeness of their votes, four were selected by Democrat presidents.

Those two chosen by Republicans—John Paul Stevens, picked by Gerald Ford, and David Souter, picked by George H. W. Bush—were liberal-minded justices replacing other liberal-minded justices, maintaining the balance of the court.

And that is the crux of the issue—the court's balance.

Some of the Supreme Court's most important rulings, such as Roe v. Wade, were upheld by a 5-4 majority. There are nine members on the court, which guarantees a majority in every vote. But that majority is often by one, and it takes only one replaced justice to tilt the balance back, opening up established precedents and rulings to challenge.

Kennedy voted to uphold Roe v. Wade, and was the decisive vote in cases involving civil rights and affirmative action. Now the question is, to what extent will Kavanaugh echo Kennedy's decisions? Or will he unravel Kennedy's legacy?