Video: Supreme Court surprises

By Brian Williams Anchor & “Nightly News” managing editor
NBC News
updated 10/7/2005 6:18:25 PM ET 2005-10-07T22:18:25

He was a little-known judge, but President George Herbert Walker Bush had been assured the quiet man from New Hampshire was a conservative thinker.

It turns out that Justice David Souter has turned into one of the most dependable votes on the liberal side of the current Supreme Court. That was a surprise to the Bush family.

“George Bush the elder was promised that Souter’s nomination would be a home run for conservatives.  It didn’t happen that way,” says Michael Beschloss, NBC News presidential historian. “But something we also sometimes don’t think about is that people evolve.  You know, these are very ambitious people before they get on the court, otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten to that level.” 

President Eisenhower was once asked: “What was the biggest mistake you ever made as president?” His answer: appointing Earl Warren as chief Justice.  Warren turned out to be a liberal lion of the bench. Ike said his second biggest mistake was appointing Justice William Brennan, who was in many ways more liberal than Warren.

It’s tough to predict how justices will rule, in part because we don’t know what they’ll be asked to rule on. “We might have new issues involving information technology for example, or new questions arising out of the war on terror, or new issues arising from natural disasters that can’t be anticipated,” says Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School.

A person who has a seat on the Supreme Court can profoundly influence American society. “This a person who can change the life of all of us, really, in the snap of a finger, by writing one word,” says Beschloss. “And it’s something that Americans are not as aware of because we don’t hear that much about these people.  We don’t see them interact.”

President Kennedy’s pick for the court, Justice Byron White turned into a surprise. President Ford, a Republican, appointed John Paul Stevens who right now heads the liberal wing of the court.

Justices will always change, right to left and left to right… some theorize that knowing they have their jobs for life has a way of freeing up their thinking.

“The framers of the constitution had a very novel idea,” explains Supreme Court historian Linda Greenhouse. “Most constitutional courts in the world don’t have life tenure. It’s not the norm. But we do, and as Ruth Ginsberg said when President Clinton nominated her, ‘You don’t necessarily have to please the home crowd.’ And that’s true. It can be rather liberating.”

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