Which President Has Nominated the Most Supreme Court Justices?

Number of Supreme Court Nominees By President

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama got to nominate three justices to the Supreme Court, about average for modern presidents. Pool / Getty Images News

President Barack Obama successfully chose two members of the U.S. Supreme Court and nominated a third before his term ended in 2017. Had Obama's third nominations made it through the politically charged and sometimes lengthy nomination process, Obama would have chosen a third of the nine-member court.

So how rare is that?

How many times has a modern president gotten an opportunity to choose three justices? Which presidents have nominated the most Supreme Court justices and had the largest impact on makeup of the highest court in the land?

Here are some questions and answers about the number of Supreme Court nominees by president.

How did Obama get the chance to nominate three justices?

Obama was able to nominate three justices because two members of the Supreme Court retired and a third died in office.

The first retirement, that of Justice David Souter, came a short time after Obama took office in 2009. Obama's chose Sonia Sotomayor, who later become the first Hispanic member and third woman justice to serve on the high court.

A year later, in 2010, Justice John Paul Stevens gave up his seat on the court. Obama picked Elena Kagan, a former Harvard Law School dean and solicitor general of the United States who was widely seen as a "consensus-building liberal."

In February 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly. Obama nominated Merrick Garland, a veteran of the Department of Justice, to fill Scalia's seat. However, the Republican-majority Senate, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, refused to allow hearings on Garland's nomination, insisting that it was inappropriate to handle a Supreme Court nomination in an election year.

Is It Rare For a President to Get to Nominate Three Justices?

Actually, no. It's not that rare.

Since 1869, the year Congress increased the number of justices to nine, 12 of the 24 presidents preceding Obama successfully chose at least three members of the Supreme Court. The most recent president to get three justices on the high court was Ronald Reagan, from 1981 through 1988. In fact, one of those nominees, Justice Anthony Kennedy, was confirmed in a presidential-election year, 1988.

So Why Were Obama's 3 Nominees Such a Big Deal?

That Obama had the opportunity to nominee three Supreme Court justices was not, in an of itself, the big story. The timing — his final 11 months in office — and the impact his choice would have had on setting the ideological course on the court for decades to come made his third nomination such a big news story and, of course, a political battle for the ages.

Related Story: What Are Obama's Chances of Replacing Scalia?

Obama was, ultimately, unsuccessful in seeing Garland confirmed. Instead, the seat remained open until after the election of his successor, Donald Trump. Trump, like Obama, also had the opportunity to nominate three justices. He filled Scalia's seat with Neil Gorsuch in 2017. In 2018, Justice Anthony Kennedy retired from the Court, and Trump filled the seat with Brett Kavanaugh, a controversial pick who was, famously, part of George W. Bush's legal team during the contested 2000 election.

In Sept. 2020, longtime Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87. Contradicting their own election-year precedent from 2016, McConnell and the Republican majority in the Senate went ahead with the confirmation for Trump's replacement pick, Amy Coney Barrett, despite the fact that the next presidential election was less than two months away. She was confirmed on Oct. 27, two weeks prior to the 2020 election.

Which President Has Chosen the Most Supreme Court Justices?

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt got eight of his nominees on the Supreme Court over the course of just six years in office. The only presidents who have come close are Dwight Eisenhower, William Taft and Ulysses Grant, whom each got five nominees on the court.

So How Does Obama's 3 Picks Compare to Other Presidents?

With three picks for the Supreme Court, Obama is exactly average. The 25 presidents since 1869 have gotten 75 nominees on the high court, meaning the average is three justices per president.

So Obama falls right in the middle.

Here is a list of presidents and the number of their Supreme Court nominees who made it to the court since 1869. The list is ranked from presidents with the most justices to those with the least.

  • Franklin Roosevelt: 8
  • Dwight Eisenhower: 5
  • William Taft: 5
  • Ulysses Grant: 5
  • Richard Nixon: 4
  • Harry Truman: 4
  • Warren Harding: 4
  • Benjamin Harrison: 4
  • Grover Cleveland: 4
  • Ronald Reagan: 3
  • Herbert Hoover: 3
  • Woodrow Wilson: 3
  • Theodore Roosevelt: 3
  • Donald Trump: 3
  • Barack Obama: 2*
  • George W. Bush: 2
  • Bill Clinton: 2
  • George H.W. Bush: 2
  • Lyndon Johnson: 2
  • John F. Kennedy: 2
  • Chester Arthur: 2
  • Rutherford Hayes: 2
  • Gerald Ford: 1
  • Calvin Coolidge: 1
  • William McKinley: 1
  • James Garfield: 1

* Obama nominated three justices, but the Senate refused to hold hearings, instead holding the seat open until after the 2016 election.

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Murse, Tom. "Which President Has Nominated the Most Supreme Court Justices?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 10, 2020, thoughtco.com/who-nominated-more-supreme-court-justices-3880107. Murse, Tom. (2020, December 10). Which President Has Nominated the Most Supreme Court Justices? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-nominated-more-supreme-court-justices-3880107 Murse, Tom. "Which President Has Nominated the Most Supreme Court Justices?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-nominated-more-supreme-court-justices-3880107 (accessed August 1, 2021).