Obama prepares for his second Supreme Court nomination

With 89-year-old veteran Justice John Paul Stevens having announced his retirement, the U.S. Supreme Court is in the headlines once again.

Thus, President Obama will make his second appointment to the high court. It’s certain, of course, that the president’s nominee will be near or left of center. Even so, five of the nine current justices have kept the court in a generally conservative mode, which began with the Richard Nixon era and continued under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, George Bush 1 and George Bush 2.

Nevertheless, there have been some notable surprises. Harry Blackmun, a Nixon appointee, eventually joined the court’s liberal side, as has Stevens, who was selected in 1975 by Ford. The Supreme Court was created in 1789 by Article 111 of the Constitution. The number of judges has ranged over the centuries from five to 10. Since 1869 the number has been nine.

Historically the court — whose justices’ appointments are lifetime — is far less familiar to most Americans than are our presidents and members of Congress. For example, how many citizens can, off the top of their heads, name the court’ nine justices?

Stevens will depart this summer after the current court term ends. He is among only 108 men and three women (former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and current Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor) in the 223-year history of our republic.

Michigan had produced only two Supreme Court Justices. Frank Murphy, a former Michigan governor, was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and served from 1940-49. Henry Billings Brown, appointed by Benjamin Harrison, wore the black robe from 1891-1906.

Although his name is obscure today, Brown wrote the majority opinion in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case. In 1896 the court, by a 7-1 vote, applying the doctrine of “separate but equal” held that racial segregation was constitutional, even in public accommodations. It took more than half a century for the courts and Congress to do away with that disgraceful ruling.

In the not-too-distant past, the court has outlawed school segregation, ordered school integration, upheld abortion rights and ruled in organized labor disputes.

Arguably, its most meaningful action of this century was the high court’s 5-4 decision (along conservative versus liberal lines) in the 2000 presidential election. In a dispute over the result of Florida’s election and the state’s electoral votes, the court ruling propelled the younger Bush into the White House.

We should emphasize that, although Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote and the country was bitterly divided, the court’s decision was consistent with its power under U.S. Constitution.

Justice Stevens (he’ll turn 90 on April 20) has served the court with distinction for nearly 35 years, as have most of his peers — past and present.

Against this background, Barack Obama, in the wake of the recently enacted health care law and a loud voter outcry in this general election year, will face yet another critical decision that could be a factor in whether the Democrats maintain control of Congress.

We recognize that Supreme Court appointments are at least part political, especially in this day when everything seems to be contentious. However, although the Senate is empowered to “advise and consent,” a presidential appointee whose credentials and background are proper deserves to be confirmed.

And the process by which that occurs should be civil and dignified.