WASHINGTON (AP) — After witnessing the grueling confirmation process for Judge Neil Gorsuch, it may be hard to believe people have begged off a seat on the Supreme Court.
But it’s happened more than once, though well before the age of careful vetting of nominees and Senate hearings.
Between 1789 and 1882, eight men were confirmed to a high court seat they did not fill, according to “The Supreme Court Compendium.”
Here are some details:
Robert Harrison was confirmed to the court just two days after President George Washington nominated his former lawyer and military aide. It took Harrison a month to decline the post, partly because of poor health, according to the “Documentary History of the Supreme Court.” Washington then sent Harrison a personal letter urging him to reconsider. Alexander Hamilton also made a pitch to Harrison, who initially relented and set out from Maryland for New York, then the nation’s capital. But a week later, Harrison wrote Washington again to reaffirm his refusal. He died less than three months later.
John Jay and William Cushing both served on the court, Jay as the first chief justice. Washington wanted to make Cushing chief justice a year after Jay resigned, but the justice turned down the promotion, even after Senate confirmation, and served on the court another 14 years, until his death in 1810. President John Adams wanted Jay to return as the court’s chief in 1800. He said no.
President James Madison saw two of his high court nominees confirmed by the Senate only to reject their seat on the bench. Levi Lincoln cited poor health and age. In 1811, John Quincy Adams said he had bigger things on his mind. He became president 14 years later.
President Andrew Jackson nominated William Smith to the court a day before the end of his administration. The Senate confirmed its onetime colleague from South Carolina. He declined, “preferring to engage in activities that offered higher remuneration,” according to “The Supreme Court Compendium.”
In late 1869, President Ulysses Grant chose Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war for much of the Civil War, to fill a Supreme Court seat. The Senate confirmed Stanton a few days before Christmas. But he died four days later, without ever being sworn in as a justice.
The last man who won Senate confirmation but did not serve was Roscoe Conkling in 1882. A former senator from New York, Conkling decided to practice law in New York City rather than return to the Capitol, where the Supreme Court then met in the old Senate chamber.
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