Wondering when Supreme Court nominations became so politically contentious? Only about 222 years ago — when the Senate voted down George Washington's choice for chief justice.
"We are in an era of extreme partisan energy right now. In such a moment, the partisanship will manifest itself across government, and there's no reason to think the nomination process will be exempt from that. It hasn't been in the past," University of Georgia law professor Lori Ringhand said.
This year's brouhaha sees Senate Democrats and Republicans bracing for a showdown over President Donald Trump's nominee, Neil Gorsuch. It's the latest twist in the political wrangling that has surrounded the high court vacancy almost from the moment Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016.
Each side has accused the other of unprecedented obstruction. Republicans wouldn't even hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's nominee. Democrats are threatening a filibuster, which takes 60 votes to overcome, to try to stop Gorsuch from becoming a justice. If they succeed, Republicans who control the Senate could change the rules and prevail with a simple majority vote in the 100-member body.
As she lays out in "Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings and Constitutional Change," the book she co-wrote, Ringhand said, "There were more rejected nominees in the first half of the nation's history than in the second half. That controversy has been partisan in many cases, back to George Washington."
"Confirmations have been episodically controversial," said Ringhand, who is the Georgia law school's associate dean. "The level of controversy has ebbed and flowed."
John Rutledge, a South Carolinian who was a drafter of the Constitution, was the first to succumb to politics. The Senate confirmed Rutledge as a justice in 1789, a post he gave up a couple of years later to become South Carolina's chief justice.
In 1795, Washington nominated Rutledge to replace John Jay as chief justice. By then, Rutledge had become an outspoken opponent of the Jay Treaty, which sought to reduce tensions with England. A year after ratifying the treaty, the Senate voted down Rutledge's nomination.
The Supreme Court says a former top lawyer at the National Labor Relations Board served in violation of a federal law governing temporary appointments.
The 6-2 ruling on Tuesday limits the president's power to fill vacant government posts while nominations are tied up in partisan political fights.
The justices said that Lafe Solomon was not allowed to serve as acting general counsel of the agency that enforces labor laws while he was at the same time nominated to fill that role permanently.
President Barack Obama named Solomon acting general counsel in June 2010 and he held the office until Nov. 4, 2013. But he never won Senate confirmation because Republicans viewed him as too favorable to labor unions.
North Carolina Republican legislative leaders want the U.S. Supreme Court to reject the new Democratic state attorney general's bid to dismiss their appeal of a lower court ruling that struck down a voting law based on racial bias.
Lawyers the General Assembly hired to defend the 2013 law approved by the GOP objected Monday to Attorney General Josh Stein's petition last week and want the justices to continue considering their previously filed appeal.
They say Stein lacks authority to step in because previous Attorney General Roy Cooper stopped defending the law last summer after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the law unconstitutional. A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit found the law targeted minority voters. The legislature's private lawyers continued the appeal.
The measure required photo identification to vote in person, reduced the number of early voting days and eliminated same-day registration during the early-voting period. Republicans said the changes were designed to improve public confidence in elections and weren't racially discriminatory.
Another state law allows legislative leaders to hire their own attorneys to defend challenged laws, the lawyers wrote in their formal objection filed with the justices.
The legislators' lawyers also said Stein has a conflict of interest that should disqualify him from representing the state because he testified against the law at trial while a state senator. Stein was elected attorney general in November and took office Jan. 1.
Stein's "motion is nothing less than a politically-motivated attempt to hijack a ... petition in a major Voting Rights Act case, in violation of the plain terms of North Carolina law and the canons of professional ethics," said the objection, signed by Washington-based attorney Kyle Duncan.
Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman for Stein's Department of Justice, said in an email Stein "disagrees with the arguments and believes they are without merit. We will wait for further direction from the Supreme Court."
Maryland's ban on 45 kinds of assault weapons and its 10-round limit on gun magazines were upheld Tuesday by a federal appeals court in a decision that met with a strongly worded dissent.
In a 10-4 ruling, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., said the guns banned under Maryland's law aren't protected by the Second Amendment.
"Put simply, we have no power to extend Second Amendment protections to weapons of war," Judge Robert King wrote for the court, adding that the Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller explicitly excluded such coverage.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who led the push for the law in 2013 as a state senator, said it's "unthinkable that these weapons of war, weapons that caused the carnage in Newtown and in other communities across the country, would be protected by the Second Amendment."
"It's a very strong opinion, and it has national significance, both because it's en-banc and for the strength of its decision," Frosh said, noting that all of the court's judges participated.
Judge William Traxler issued a dissent. By concluding the Second Amendment doesn't even apply, Traxler wrote, the majority "has gone to greater lengths than any other court to eviscerate the constitutionally guaranteed right to keep and bear arms." He also wrote that the court did not apply a strict enough review on the constitutionality of the law.
A federal judge has given Democrats a partial victory in the presidential battleground of Florida, extending the state's voter registration deadline one day and agreeing to consider a longer extension in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
The initial deadline was Tuesday, but Florida Democrats, with the support of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, argued that would-be voters deserved more time. Republican Gov. Rick Scott last week urged 1.5 million residents to evacuate as the storm approached the southeastern United States.
District Judge Mark Walker issued a temporary order Monday afternoon extending the deadline through the close of business Wednesday. He set a hearing Wednesday at 10 a.m. for arguments for a longer extension. Judges grant temporary restraining orders in cases where a petitioner demonstrates irreparable harm would occur if the court took no action. The orders often portend victory once a judge considers the merits of the case.
Clinton had called on Scott, before the suit was filed, to extend the deadline himself using his emergency authority. The governor declined, saying Floridians "had enough time to register" before the Oct. 6 evacuation orders.
Though the case involves the highest stakes in a perennial presidential battleground, the judge called it "poppycock" to claim that "the issue of extending the voter registration deadline is about politics." The case, he wrote, "is about the right of aspiring eligible voters to register to have their votes counted."
The case comes as the two presidential campaigns try to resume their full activities in Florida and North Carolina, the two battlegrounds where Matthew left fatalities and wracked widespread damage.
Serving on the U.S. Supreme Court has been both a blessing and a curse and reaching decisions is harder than she ever expected, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Thursday during a visit to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The court's first Hispanic justice told a packed campus theater that said she still marvels that she holds her position, noting she sits so close to the president at State of the Union addresses she can almost touch him. But the job comes with a heavy burden because every decision the court makes affects so many people and each ruling creates losers, she said, recalling moments in court where losing litigants have wept.
"I never forget that in every case, someone wins, and there's an opposite. Someone loses. And that burden feels very heavy to me," Sotomayor said. "I have not anticipated how hard decision-making is on the court. Because of that big win and lose on the court and we are affecting lives across the country and sometimes across the world, I'm conscious that what I do will always affect someone."
Sotomayor spoke for about an hour and a half, wandering up and down the theater's aisles and shaking hands with people as she answered questions from a pair of her former law clerks sitting on stage. She warned the audience that she couldn't talk about pending cases and the clerks never asked her about the Senate refusing to hold a hearing or vote on Judge Merrick Garland's nomination to replace the late Antonin Scalia as the court's ninth justice. The clerks instead gave her general questions about her experiences and thought processes. She kept her answers just as general.
Judge Merrick Garland found himself back on Capitol Hill on Thursday in a familiar place — meeting with a Democratic senator who used the visit to complain about Republicans' inaction on President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. said he met with Garland to "see how he's doing." Nearly six months ago, Obama nominated Garland to fill the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia's death in February. Republicans have said they won't act until the next president chooses a nominee.
"He's had to wait longer than any nominee ever has," Leahy told reporters. "We've got plenty of time. If they want to do their job, we could easily have the hearing and the confirmation in September."
Asked if he'd seen any signs that Republicans are wavering in their refusal to consider a nominee this year, Leahy said, "You'll have to ask them." The spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who's led GOP opposition to Garland, said nothing has changed.
"The majority leader has been clear: The next president will make the nomination for this vacancy," said spokesman Don Stewart.
Vice President Joe Biden also planned to be on Capitol Hill on Thursday to help turn up the pressure on McConnell.
It was Garland's first visit to Congress since he held dozens of individual meetings with senators in the spring.
The court is currently divided 4-4 between liberal- and conservative-leaning justices. Garland's confirmation would tip the court in the more liberal direction.
Both parties have appealed to voters by making the court's leaning a campaign issue, stressing that either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump will decide that by whomever they nominate.