Despite a long record as the most favorably viewed branch of government, America’s judiciary has an equally long history of dynamic controversy. While presidents and members of Congress do their best to hog the spotlight—and the headlines of tabloids—the highest court in the country has still managed to capture the public’s attention, inspire indignation, and host the sort of drama that might just compel the uninitiated to agree with Jack Nicholson’s most memorable pronouncement under oath.
The lifetime appointments of Supreme Court justices mean that chaos and speculation abound every time a sitting justice retires or passes away…which, you may have noticed, is suddenly extremely relevant with the passing of Antonin Scalia. Controversy is bound to be tied to whoever takes his place, but as these 10 examples show, it certainly won’t be the first time.
10. William Brennan, Jr.
With the benefit of hindsight, Justice Brennan is fondly remembered by historians and legal scholars alike as one of the most respected, influential, and determinedly liberal justices ever to serve—not mention his 34-year tenure is one of the longest on record.
That bit about being “liberal” is more than a footnote, though: the Democratic Justice Brennan was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican. This was either especially shrewd or especially risky on Eisenhower’s part, as he made the appointment in the midst of election season, while Congress was in recess—something that has since become something of a rarity, to put it mildly.
Fans of President Kennedy might also be fascinated to learn that, just like Jack, Brennan’s nomination faced intense scrutiny from critics who feared his Irish Catholic background, rather than knowledge of the Constitution, would inform his judgments.
Even Brennan was reportedly taken by surprise at his being picked, considering the stakes involved. Eisenhower managed to secure a second term as President, and Brennan went on to be confirmed by the Senate soon after, going on to serve through the next seven presidencies and 22 congresses, before retiring for his health in 1990.