Thirty-two years ago this month, one day after John Lennon was killed, the Senate confirmed Stephen Breyer to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Looking back, this 1980 vote on a future U.S. Supreme Court justice was remarkable and historic in its timing, speed, and long-term consequences.
In November 1980, Jimmy Carter lost a landslide election to Ronald Reagan, and Republicans won control of the Senate. Just days later, though, President Carter nominated Breyer to the First Circuit, and the lame-duck Senate confirmed him in December.
Citing the Congressional Research Service in a press release two weeks ago, Senator Chuck Grassley noted that, in addition to 2012, “the Senate has confirmed judicial nominees during a lame-duck session in a presidential election year on only three [other] occasions since 1940” (1944, 1980, and 2004).
Breyer was the only judge confirmed in the 1980 lame-duck session; in other words, he was in a category by himself between 1944 and 2004.
Breyer moved from nomination to confirmation in less than a month, which was not completely out of the norm then. Other circuit judges confirmed earlier in 1980 had gotten votes in short order. The Senate confirmed Breyer’s future colleague, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, only two months after her nomination to the D.C. Circuit. Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt was the exception with a nine-month gap.
Today, Breyer’s one-month lag time would be almost unthinkable, particularly for a circuit nominee. President Obama nominated William Kayatta in January of this year for a Maine seat on Breyer’s former court, the First Circuit. Despite support from Maine’s two Republican senators, Kayatta has not yet been confirmed. Two pending circuit nominees have been on hold even longer.
Without the quick, once-in-a-blue-moon vote in 1980, Breyer would have had a long wait for another opportunity. Republicans controlled the White House for the next twelve years.
Breyer served on the First Circuit during that time and beyond, eventually presiding as chief judge when President Clinton nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1994.
Clinton could have nominated Breyer to the Supreme Court without circuit experience, but the odds are against it. The last ten nominees to join the Court, except Elena Kagan, were all circuit judges.
Perhaps Breyer could have been nominated to a circuit court soon after Clinton’s election and had a short stint below. David Souter sat for only five months as a circuit judge before being confirmed to the Supreme Court, as a nominee of President George H.W. Bush.
No one can know for sure what would have happened, because lightning struck for Breyer in 1980, and the rest is history.
So, why did Breyer’s 1980 nomination go through?
Boston Globe articles at the time point to at least two reasons.
Breyer, who was serving as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee when nominated, impressed senators from both parties.
“It’s a rare personality that can survive two years in Washington and gain the admiration of a liberal Democrat like Edward Kennedy and an arch-conservative like Republican Strom Thurmond,” the Globe explained. However, “Breyer managed to do it.”
The Globe also reported that the two parties may have struck a deal. Republicans would support the Breyer nomination, while Democrats would not push a stack of other pending judicial nominees. Republicans helped force a vote on Breyer when a block was attempted and then helped confirm him.