President Reagan advanced a philosophy characterized by judicial self-restraint and a reduction of governmental intrusion into people’s lives. Perhaps the greatest impact of this ideology occurred in the Supreme Court, where four of the justices he nominated changed its direction.
Ronald Reagan evinced few legal interests in college where he majored in economics, in radio, or in Hollywood as an actor. However, during his testimony as an informant before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he attached a higher priority to protecting U.S. security from communist subversion than to the civil rights of the accused. This represented the beginning of Reagan’s dramatic shift from what he called “a near hopeless hemophiliac liberal” to a staunch conservative who believed that the courts should enforce the law, not create it.
Reagan’s judicial views crystallized as governor of California from 1967 to 1975 when he opposed protecting the civil rights of Vietnam War protesters. On the other hand, he favored a woman’s right to an abortion and prisoners’ rights and did not agree with a proposal to keep homosexual teachers out of public schools. Governor Reagan achieved a solid record in his selection of capable though controversial judges during his two terms. To his dismay, he also learned that even qualified conservatives such as Chief Justice Donald Wright, whom he nominated to the California supreme court, might bitterly disappoint him. Wright wrote the decision striking down California’s capital punishment law, which bore Reagan’s signature. These experiences strongly affected his judicial strategy once he became president in 1981.
Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan inherently understood the importance of establishing a federal judiciary consistent with his agenda. At the top of that list sat the Supreme Court, to which he pledged to appoint justices who would reverse the liberal trends established between 1954 and 1980. Reagan believed that the Court had moved beyond its constitutional limitations of interpreting the law to creating it. When historians later judged him by the fulfillment of his campaign promises, he experienced greater success in the selection of federal judges, including the Supreme Court, than in any other aspect of domestic policy. The result was that his appointments effectively halted the liberal direction of the Court.
When Reagan took the presidential inaugural oath on January 20, 1981, he began the task of appointing judges who would support his conservative views. In this regard, he ordered his first attorney general, William French Smith, to establish the Office of Legal Policy in the Justice Department in order to ensure the selection of legitimate conservatives. Although Reagan enforced no “litmus test,” Smith and his successor, Edwin Meese III, saw to it that he nominated people who supported his philosophy.
Although Reagan changed the direction of the Court between 1981 and 1989, the shift did not fully satisfy the right wing of the Republican Party. One example of this ideological problem occurred on July 7, 1981, when he nominated the first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor,
Reagan also nominated William H. Rehnquist,
Although the Rehnquist Court effectively ended the federal judiciary’s movement to a liberal position, it did not satisfy many of the president’s most ardent right-wing supporters. For example, on June 21, 1989, the Court struck down a Texas flag desecration law and forty-eight similar state statutes. Had Bork, rather than Kennedy, been appointed, the 5-4 decision would have upheld the law rather than revoke it. Furthermore, perhaps reflecting Reagan’s own ambivalence about abortion, despite several opportunities, the Court refused to overturn Roe v. Wade. However, even if the Rehnquist Court was not as conservative as Reagan would have preferred, it still moved further to the right than its predecessors, especially with the addition of Clarence Thomas in 1991. The Court did not overturn any of the landmark liberal decisions, but it supported the death penalty and a more conservative interpretation of criminal, civil, and property rights.
Ronald Reagan had “an Everyman’s view of the law and the Constitution.” He did not feel that only perfect conservative clones should be selected to the Court, rather preferring justices who would interpret, not make or create law. Therefore, the Court during Reagan’s presidency contributed a more moderate legacy than that suggested by his rhetoric, which suggested a radically conservative departure from the changes implemented by previous liberal courts. Although this development probably disappointed those who hoped that the Rehnquist Court would substitute judicial activism on the right for its counterpart on the left, it more closely followed the moderately conservative trend gaining popularity throughout the country. Nonetheless, when Reagan’s record of remaking the Court is added to his impact on the entire judicial branch, only Roosevelt exerted a greater impact on American justice.
Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. Schwartz, Bernard. A History of the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Wills, Garry. Reagan’s America. New York: Doubleday, 1987.
Bork, Robert H.
Kennedy, Anthony M.
O’Connor, Sandra Day
Rehnquist, William H.
Roe v. Wade