Reagan Conservatism Seen in Supreme Court

Ronald Reagan's (search) conservatism can be seen at the nation's highest court, dominated by his colorful and influential choices.

While their positions on issues have not been consistently conservative, the justices Reagan named to the Supreme Court have worked together to empower states' rights, just as the Republican hoped.

Reagan's most cheered choice was that of a then-little known judge from Arizona, Sandra Day O'Connor (search), as the first woman on the Supreme Court.

Reagan also picked the court's leader, making then-Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) the nation's 16th chief justice. Rehnquist turns 80 this year and still holds the job.

His other Supreme Court justices were Antonin Scalia (search) and Anthony M. Kennedy (search).

The four have voted together in a series of cases, decided by 5-4 votes, that found Congress overstepped its authority in passing some civil rights and other laws. The states' rights cases are considered the hallmark of the conservative bent under Rehnquist.

"That is Ronald Reagan's hand on the Supreme Court every day," Stephen Wermiel, an American University law professor who follows the court, said after Reagan died Saturday.

Wermiel said Reagan used the Supreme Court as an issue when he was a presidential candidate.

"The goal was to transform the court, to tip the balance back to the states and to make the court system more responsive to victims of crimes and less focused on defendants. I think he succeeded, not to a total degree, but some degree," Wermiel said.

O'Connor and Kennedy have disappointed some conservatives with their often moderate positions. The Reagan justices are key swing votes and side with the court liberals sometimes in affirmative action, abortion and death penalty cases.

"Would he have been totally pleased with all four? Probably not," said Nicole Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor and former clerk at the Supreme Court. "He would have wanted more Rehnquists. Maybe Scalias."

O'Connor was Reagan's first choice, in 1981. Five years after her selection, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger (search) decided to retire, and the president made Rehnquist the nation's 16th chief justice. Scalia was selected to replace Rehnquist as an associate justice.

Scalia skated through his Senate confirmation, but Rehnquist's nomination, although ultimately successful, hit considerable opposition.

It proved a comparatively mild precursor, however, to the confirmation battle generated by Reagan's 1987 nomination of federal appellate judge Robert Bork (search). After Bork was alternately portrayed as a brilliant jurist and a dangerous extremist, the Senate rejected his nomination, 58-42.

Reagan's second choice for filling the vacancy created by Lewis Powell's departure also came up short when federal appellate judge Douglas Ginsburg withdrew from consideration after reports surfaced about his smoking marijuana while a Harvard University law professor.

The Senate confirmed Reagan's third choice, Kennedy, in early 1988.

Douglas Kmiec, an assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration, said that Kennedy has become the court's free speech defender, O'Connor has been a major advocate of states' rights and Scalia is the "scrappy, conservative intellectual" who pushes the court to be deferential to legislative decisions.

Scalia often sharply chides Kennedy and O'Connor when he feels they've veered off track.

For example, when Kennedy wrote a decision last year striking down bans on gay sex, Scalia accused his colleagues of inviting same-sex marriage and said Kennedy's ruling "coos" over a feel-good, gay rights agenda.

Also last year, O'Connor wrote the 5-4 decision that upheld the concept of affirmative action at public universities.

Because abortion rights have not been erased and affirmative action remains, Reagan's "legacy is a mixed legacy," Wermiel said.

"The judicial revolution of Ronald Reagan never quite achieved its full potential," he said.