Let’s start with the history.
Thanks to the Senate historian, we can see the fate of every person whose nomination to the Supreme Court was advanced to the chamber. There have been 161 such nominees, 124 of whom were confirmed — and seven of whom declined the job offer.
But what we’re interested in here, at the moment of President Trump’s first nomination to the court, is what history can tell us about how long the nomination fight for that pick, Neil Gorsuch, will last. So here’s the broad sweep of those nominations, grouped by nominee.
The details of who is where are not important for our purposes, although we’ve flagged the never-to-be-considered nomination of Merrick Garland for reference a bit further on. The nominations come at random intervals, so we’ve flagged those that were presented in years that were multiples of 10, just to give a sense of where in history we’re situated.
Notice that those for whom no action was taken are often the ones who wait longer — in part because they just wait and wait until their confirmations are no longer a question that needs to be answered.
Notice, too, that things have slowed down of late. Since about 1940, the time that nominees wait to learn their fate has grown. Things take longer than they used to. Many of those invisible little lines in the upper part of that graph are simply one- or two-day waits for quick confirmations. Before 1940, 47 confirmations were made within a week. After 1940, there were two such swift confirmations.
Confirmations also tend to be executed more rapidly than rejections (and withdrawals, which are often face-saving moves in the face of rejection). That makes sense: It takes more time to fight back and forth over someone than to give a thumbs up. Hearings and jockeying and filibusters and so on take time. But, as above, confirmations are slower than they used to be.
What this tells us, then, is that we have some sense of how long this particular fight might take. If Gorsuch is confirmed at the recent historic pace, he’ll be on the bench by March 15. If he withdraws, until early April. And if the fight goes on and on to the point that he withdraws, expect that to happen in early May.
If, however, the Senate were to decide to do nothing, to let the president make a nomination that then is ignored, the average length of time for such a move since 1940 is 186 days. But in this case it would be longer, of course, having to wait until the end of the 115th Congress in late 2018.
Luckily for Gorsuch, that treatment of a nominee has never happened twice in a row — since usually nominees who never get consideration from the Senate run up against a switch in the White House, in addition to a switch in the calendar.