For decades, presidential candidates disclaimed the idea that they would have “litmus tests” for their nominees to the Supreme Court. Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that to demand that their judicial nominees decide particular cases particular ways would be wrong. Judicial litmus tests were bad. They were what candidates accused opponents of having. In the 2016 election, this taboo was exploded.
The idea of a Supreme Court litmus test first became prominent in post-Roe v. Wade debates over the right to abortion. The 1980 Republican platform included a promise to “work for the appointment of judges at all levels of the judiciary who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life,” and the party’s nominee, Ronald Reagan, denounced Roe. Yet Reagan always insisted that he would not use opposition to the decision as a requirement for his Supreme Court nominees. Democrats nonetheless attacked Reagan throughout his presidency for having an abortion litmus test. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan went so far as to declare “ideological tests for the judiciary” a form of “corruption.”
In 1988, both major party candidates disclaimed having any litmus tests for Court appointments. Four years later, then-incumbent George H.W. Bush again rebuffed accusations that he had any litmus tests. Bush supporters attacked Democratic nominee Bill Clinton when he indicated that a commitment to upholding Roe would be a requirement for his Court nominees. Clinton and his advisors tried to steer clear of the litmus-test label. They ultimately chose largely to sidestep the Court as a campaign issue.
In 2000 and again in 2004, George W. Bush came out strongly in support of a pro-life position on abortion, yet he too insisted he would not make opposition to Roe a litmus test for his Court appointments.
The 2016 election shattered what previously had been a stable precedent that presidential candidates must openly reject litmus tests for potential Supreme Court appointments. In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders declared that his nominees would have to be committed to overturning Citizens United, even embracing the previously verboten “litmus test” label. Clinton matched Sanders by also stating opposition to Citizens United would be a litmus test. She then upped the ante by declaring that she would have “a bunch of litmus tests” for her nominees.
On the other side, Trump went on record declaring opposition to Roe and support for religious liberty and for Heller as litmus tests for his nominees.
Legal commentator and newspaper editors protested the apparent fall of the no-litmus-test norm, but their criticism had little effect on the candidates.
Whether there is any life left in the no-litmus-test norm is a question that will be answered in future presidential elections.
This post was written by ISCOTUS Co-Director and Chicago-Kent Faculty Member Christopher W. Schmidt. It is the fifth of a multi-part ISCOTUS series on the Supreme Court and the 2016 presidential election.