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Gerald Ford's Supreme Court Legacy

With Gerald R. Ford's death Tuesday, many observers are assessing the legacy of this lawyer who became president. While his pardon of Richard Nixon is an unavoidable focus of debate, two commentators -- Bill Barnhart in the Chicago Tribune and Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog -- suggest that the greater milestone of his presidency may be his nomination of John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court. In fact, Ford himself cited this as the measure of his term. In a letter Ford wrote last year to the dean of the Fordham University law school, Barnhart reports, he discussed how historians would evaluate his presidency:

"Normally, little or no consideration is given to the long-term effects of a president's Supreme Court nominees. Let that not be the case with my presidency. For I am prepared to allow history's judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination 30 years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court."

If so, the legacy remains a work in progress. As Denniston writes:

"His one appointee to the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens, this month completed his 31st year on the Court and remains a dominant figure -- perhaps the most important voice there on the grave constitutional issues still unfolding on presidential powers in wartime. At age 86, Stevens shows no signs of tiring of the Court's work, or of thinking seriously about retirement."

Both Barnhart and Denniston agree that Ford will be remembered not simply for the person he nominated, but also for his decision to choose a nominee based on merit rather than politics. But Denniston reminds us of another, less memorable, mark Ford left on judicial tenure. Just five years before nominating Stevens to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Justice William O. Douglas, Ford, as House Republican leader, led "an unsuccessful and arguably misguided effort" to impeach Douglas. In the course of that effort, Ford gave a speech in which, to his own question, "What, then, is an impeachable offense?" he answered:

"The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers to be at a given moment in history; conviction results from whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body [the Senate] considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office."

In part, then, Ford's legacy is this open-ended definition of what constitutes misbehavior in office, Denniston says, concluding:

"It has become, perhaps as a direct result of Ford's formulation, an inexpensive political gesture for members of Congress to call for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justices whose decisions do not meet with political favor. That, too, is part of the Ford legacy."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on December 28, 2006 at 02:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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