On the seventh of May, 1930, the Senate rejected a Supreme Court nominee. What makes this action worth noting today is that it was the Senate’s only rejection of a Supreme Court candidate in the 74-year span between 1894 and 1968. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the Senate had shown no such reticence, rejecting or otherwise blocking nearly one out of every three high court nominees.
Early in 1930, death claimed two Supreme Court justices. Republican President Herbert Hoover chose former associate justice Charles Evans Hughes to fill the vacant position of chief justice. As the deepening economic depression eroded the president’s clout on Capitol Hill, a coalition of southern senators and progressives from other regions sought to block Hughes’ confirmation. Some opposed the nominee for his close ties to large corporations, while others believed that his resignation from the court years earlier to run as the 1916 Republican presidential nominee disqualified him from a second chance. After only several days of debate, the Senate confirmed his appointment, but with many members deeply resentful of the manner in which the administration had handled the nomination.
Three weeks after the Hughes confirmation, a second justice died. Hoover believed he had an easily confirmable candidate when he nominated John Parker, a prominent North Carolina Republican and chief judge of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Unfortunately for Judge Parker, two actions from his past doomed his chances. Several years earlier, he had delivered a strongly anti-labor opinion that infuriated the American Federation of Labor. The NAACP also joined the opposition in response to remarks Parker had made a decade before. In the midst of a 1920 campaign for governor of North Carolina, Parker had responded to a race-baiting prediction by his opponents that, if elected, he would encourage political participation by black citizens. “The participation of the Negro in politics,” said Parker, “is a source of evil and danger to both races and is not desired by the wise men in either race or by the Republican Party of North Carolina.” That comment, his anti-labor opinion, and senatorial resentment against the Hoover administration, led to his rejection by a vote of 39 to 41.
Hoover’s next nominee, Owen Roberts, cleared the Senate without controversy. Over the following 38 years, until 1968, the Senate approved all high court nominees, conducting roll-call votes on only seven of 24 candidates.
Abraham, Henry J. Justices, Presidents and Senators: A History of U.S. Supreme Court Appointments From Washington to Clinton. 4th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.