Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to serve on the Supreme Court will soon be considered by the full Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took the necessary procedural step to have a final vote on confirming Kavanaugh by Saturday, ending a long process that has seemingly widened the already broad gap between conservatives and liberals.
How long has that process been? Assuming that the vote occurs Saturday, it will be the third-longest period between nomination and vote since the confirmation of William H. Rehnquist to sit on the court in 1971. The only nomination fights that took longer were those of Robert H. Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991.
That excludes the nomination of Merrick Garland by President Barack Obama, because Garland’s nomination was never brought up for a vote.
Even casual students of history will note something about the two nominees who endured longer nomination processes than Kavanaugh: Each was highly contentious, and Bork was rejected by the full Senate.
In fact, there’s a correlation between the duration of a nomination process and the closeness of the vote, particularly in recent years. Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan both had longer-than-average nomination processes and both received close votes in the Senate.
(This chart assumes a Saturday vote and a narrow margin in favor of confirming Kavanaugh.)
That’s in part a function of the increase in the ideological consideration of nominees. We looked at that increase Thursday morning; confirmation votes are much more polarized on partisan lines than they used to be, really beginning with the Alito nomination. Nominees were once given a great deal of leeway in deference to the president, a tendency that has evaporated. McConnell’s decision to set aside the filibuster for nominees was an almost-natural continuation of the partisanship of court fights, given how difficult it is for anything to receive 60 votes of support in a divided, polarized Senate.
The Kavanaugh vote (if it occurs Saturday) also will happen closer to a federal election than any confirmation vote in decades. The confirmations of Justices Antonin Scalia and David H. Souter both fell within the final 50 days before a midterm election, but Kavanaugh’s may be only one month out.
That combination explains a lot: A highly partisan, very close confirmation vote for the highest court in the country, happening at the height of a closely watched and hard-fought midterm election. Kavanaugh’s nomination, for a variety of reasons, has overlapped with and heightened the political tensions of the moment.
It’s very safe to assume that partisan tension will not subside much in the aftermath of the vote, whatever the outcome.