Replacing Scalia: A Look Back at Some of the Rockiest Supreme Court Nominations

by Erik Ortiz /  / Updated 

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The path for a potential Supreme Court justice to go from early presidential pick to sitting on the highest court in the country has often been a rocky road.

With the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia last week, that could prove true once again.

The GOP has already warned President Barack Obama that they will put up a fight if he chooses to nominate someone during his final year in office.

The president on Tuesday, however, didn't back down, saying: "I intend to nominate, in due time, a very well-qualified candidate."

Obama might be mindful to avoid someone who seems controversial from the get-go — although that doesn't mean a questionable candidate hasn't won the Senate's approval in the past.

Here are a few of the more notable battles:

Justice Clarence Thomas

His nomination was nearly derailed in 1991 by the testimony of Anita Hill. The then-35-year-old law professor at the University of Oklahoma claimed that Thomas had sexually harassed her when they previously worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Related: Anita Hill: 'Incredibly flawed' Process Put Clarence Thomas on the Court

Hill testified that Thomas bragged about his sexual prowess while running the EEOC, openly talked about pornography and one time asked, "Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?"

Image: Anita Hill Clarence Thomas testify 1991
Left, Clarence Thomas is sworn in before testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in the morning of Oct. 11, 1991. Right, Anita Hill is sworn in before testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on Oct. 11, 1991.AP, file

After two days of intense scrutiny, Thomas invoked race as he denied the accusations and told the Senate Judiciary Committee that his confirmation hearing had become "a circus."

"From my standpoint as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas," he told the committee, which was headed by now-Vice President Joe Biden, a Delaware senator at the time.

Related: Obama Could Win Supreme Court Battle in This 17-Day Window

"You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree," Thomas continued.

Thomas, who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to succeed first black Justice Thurgood Marshall, squeaked by when the Senate voted 52 to 48 to confirm him.

The drama behind the contentious confirmation will be in the spotlight again in April, when HBO airs "Confirmation," starring Kerry Washington as Hill, Wendell Pierce as Thomas and Greg Kinnear as Biden.

Harriet Miers

Miers' nomination in 2005 turned into a political debacle for President George W. Bush, who was criticized by both Democrats and the right wing of the GOP for picking her as a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Miers, a corporate attorney from Texas, had been counsel to Bush's White House administration, but never served as a judge. That rankled some senators who also said she failed to demonstrate an in-depth knowledge of constitutional law.

Supreme Court Justice nominee Harriet Miers, center, walks down the hall with Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., right, before their meeting Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2005, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.HARAZ N. GHANBARI / AP file

Some senators had asked for Miers' correspondence with Bush to be turned over to give more insight into her beliefs, which was a non-starter because those documents were protected by executive privilege.

But less than a month after Bush announced Miers' nomination, she asked him to withdraw it.

Related: Inside the Knotty Fight to Replace Justice Antonin Scalia

"I am concerned that the confirmation process presents a burden for the White House and its staff and it is not in the best interest of the country," she wrote.

Bush, in a statement, cited the senators' request to release internal documents for undermining Miers' nomination.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Before becoming the first Latina on the high court, Sotomayor was grilled extensively by Republicans during her nomination hearing in 2009.

The New York-born appeals court judge became Obama's premiere pick when in the first time during his presidency he was required to replace a Supreme Court justice — in this case, a retiring David Souter.

Image: 88375856
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor listens to members of the Judiciary Committee during her Senate confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 13, 2009.NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP - Getty Images

But a past speech of Sotomayor's came back to haunt her.

In a 2001 Berkeley Law lecture she said: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

The "wise Latina" line became fodder for questioning about whether her personal views could unjustly influence the outcome of a case. Sotomayor was forced to walk back her remarks.

"It was bad because it left an impression that I believed that life experiences commanded a result in a case, but that's clearly not what I do as a judge," she said.

Ultimately, she was confirmed by a Senate vote of 68 to 31.

Robert Bork

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork — a former U.S. solicitor general and federal judge seen as a champion of conservative ideals — to replace Lewis Powell, who was retiring.

But from the beginning, Bork was criticized by various groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, for being critical of pro-civil rights decisions, as well as the rights of women after saying Roe v. Wade was unconstitutional.

Related: Conservative Judicial Hero Robert Bork Dies

Image: Gerald Ford, Robert Bork 1987 nomination confirmation hearing
Former President Gerald Ford, left, introduces Supreme Court Associate Justice nominee Robert Bork on Sept. 15, 1987, as the Senate Judiciary Committee began confirmation hearings on the nomination on Capitol Hill.Charles Tasnadi / AP file

Sen. Ted Kennedy, upon learning of Bork's nomination, went to the Senate floor in fiery opposition, saying: "Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, school children could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censured at the whim of government."

That was only the beginning.

Making matters worse were his ties to disgraced President Richard Nixon, whom Bork was an influential adviser to. It was Bork — the solicitor general and the president's No. 3 — who had to fire special counsel Archibald Cox amid the Watergate scandal.

Ultimately, Bork's nomination process became one of the longest in history after it took 108 days and 12 public hearings before a decision was made. He was rejected by a 58 to 42 vote.

Bork became the last nominee to be rejected outright to the Supreme Court. His name even inspired the verb "to bork" — meaning to vilify a person in order to prevent them from being appointed to public office.

Douglas Ginsburg

After Bork's nomination was abandoned, Appeals Court Judge Ginsburg became another pick by Reagan to fill Powell's vacany. But his bid for the high court failed for an entirely different reason: He admitted to having used marijuana several times.

Douglas Ginsburg
This 1987 file photo shows former Supreme Court Justice Douglas Ginsburg speaking at the White House in Washington.AP file

That admission appeared to contradict Reagan, who had called his pending confirmation ''vitally important to the fight against crime.''

First lady Nancy Reagan, meanwhile, was also known for her crusade against drugs, having championed the "Just Say No" slogan.

Instead, Ginsburg, who is not related to current Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, withdrew his application.

His bailing out led the way for another justice, Anthony Kennedy, to be confirmed.

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