Thursday, January 17, 2019

LBJ's Biggest Mistake: Vietnam or Fortas?

Was in a discussion this morning on Supreme Court confirmations, which caused me to remember one of LBJ's biggest mistakes. Briefly, without checking my facts, Earl Warren decided to retire in 1968 as Chief Justice. 

LBJ decided on a cute doubleplay--promote his attorney and longtime friend, Abe Fortas, from Associate Justice to Chief, and put Texan Homer Thornberry in to replace Fortas.  In my memory, LBJ could likely have gotten a different person confirmed as chief but Fortas was a bridge too far.  Not only was he a liberal justice, but he had always been an adviser to LBJ, something he continued as a Justice.  (Still not publicly known, he had a yearly retainer from Louis Wolfson, a wheeler-dealer of dubious reputation who had been convicted in 1967.) 

In 1968 LBJ had lost most of the clout he used to have, and people (senators) were tired of him.  So Fortas was not confirmed, meaning no vacancy for Thornberry to fill.  The next year Fortas was forced to resign over the Wolfson retainer, meaning Nixon could nominate and get confirmed the Minnesota Twins: Burger (as Chief) and Blackmun.

The bottom line: had LBJ paid more attention to ethics, he never would have appointed Fortas and continued using him as an adviser. And with better judgment he would have replaced Warren with a moderately liberal justice. Although Blackmun evolved into a liberal justice likely comparable to anyone LBJ would have nominated, a more liberal Chief Justice would have changed the composition of the Supreme Court for decades. 

As I think about it, our defeat in Vietnam seems to have been less consequential than we thought it would be in the 60's and 70's, while the changes in SCOTUS seem to be more consequential.  Hence my title.

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