Top 5 Supreme Court Scandals

Lawyer Anita Hill Before Testifying at Senate Judiciary Hearing
Lawyer Anita Hill Before Testifying at Senate Judiciary Hearing. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

If your knowledge of Supreme Court scandals begins and ends with the tumultuous Senate confirmation process of Justice Brett Kavanaugh in October 2018, you will either be relieved or horrified to learn that he was by no means the first jurist with a less-than-pristine reputation. From the judge who refused to listen to cases argued by women, to a former KKK member, bad behavior on the nation's highest court is not that uncommon. Here are a few of the juiciest scandals. 

Supreme Court Fast Facts

Wishing Washington Dead, Justice Rutledge Gets the Boot

Appointed by President George Washington in 1789, John Rutledge was one of the Supreme Court’s first justices. He was also the first and so-far only justice to be kicked off the court. In June 1795, Washington issued a “recess appointment” temporarily making Rutledge Chief Justice. But when the Senate reconvened in December 1795, it rejected Rutledge’s nomination because of what John Adams called his “Disorder of the Mind.” Still not recovered from the unexpected death of his wife in 1792, Rutledge gave a rant-filled speech on July 16, 1795, in which he reportedly suggested that it would be best if Washington died rather than sign the Jay Treaty with England. In Justice Rutledge’s case, that was where the Senate drew the line.

Justice McReynolds, the Equal-Opportunity Bigot

Justice James Clark McReynolds served on the court from 1914 to 1941. After he died in 1946, not a single other living current or former justice attended his funeral. Reason being, they had all come to hate his guts. Justice McReynolds, it seems, had established himself as an unabashed bigot and all-around hater. A vocal anti-Semite, his other favorite targets included African Americans, Germans, and women. Whenever Jewish Justice Louis Brandeis spoke, McReynolds would leave the room. Of Jews, he once declared, “For 4,000 years the Lord tried to make something out of Hebrews, then gave it up as impossible and turned them out to prey on mankind in general—like fleas on the dog.” He would often refer to African Americans as “ignorant,” possessing “but a small capacity for radical improvement.” And in the rare (in those days) event a woman attorney appeared to argue a case before the court, McReynolds would exclaim, “I see the female is here again,” before grandly gathering his robe and leaving the bench.

Justice Hugo Black, Ku Klux Klan Leader

Though widely recognized as a staunch supporter of civil liberties during his 34 years on the bench, Justice Hugo Black was once an organizing member of the Ku Klux Klan, even recruiting and swearing in new members. Though he had left the organization by the time President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to the Supreme Court in August 1937, public knowledge of Black’s KKK history resulted in a political firestorm.

Portrait of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Getty Images Archive

On October 1, 1937, less than two months after taking his seat on the court, Justice Black was forced to give an unprecedented nationwide radio address to explain himself. In a speech heard by an estimated 50 million Americans, he said in part, “I did join the Klan. I later resigned. I never rejoined,” adding, “Before becoming a Senator I dropped the Klan. I have had nothing to do with it since that time. I abandoned it. I completely discontinued any association with the organization. I have never resumed it and never expect to do so.” Hoping to reassure African Americans, Black said, “I number among my friends many members of the colored race. Certainly, they are entitled to the full measure of protection accorded by our Constitution and our laws.” However, in 1968, Black argued in favor of limiting the scope of the Civil Rights Act as it applied to the protection of the rights of activists and protesters, writing “unfortunately there are some who think that Negroes should have special privileges under the law.”

Justice Fortas Denies Taking Bribes but Still Quits

Justice Abe Fortas suffered a fatal flaw for judges. He liked to take bribes. Appointed to the Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, Fortas had already faced serious allegations of improperly promoting LBJ’s political career while serving on the highest court in the land. Things got a lot worse for Justice Fortas in 1969, when it was revealed that he had accepted a secret legal retainer from his former friend and client, infamous Wall Street financier Louis Wolfson. Under their agreement, Wolfson was to pay Fortas $20,000 a year for life in return for special help and “consultation” during his pending trial on charges of securities fraud. Whatever Fortas did to help Wolfson failed. He ended up in federal prison and Fortas saw the handwriting on the wall. Though he always denied taking Wolfson’s money, Abe Fortas became the first and so far only Supreme Court justice to resign under threat of impeachment on May 15, 1969.

Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, and the NAACP

The two most-watched TV events of 1991 were probably the First Gulf War and the Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill Supreme Court Senate confirmation hearings. Spanning 36 days, the bitterly fought hearings centered on accusations that Thomas had sexually harassed attorney Anita Hill when she had worked for him at the Department of Education and the EEOC. In her testimony, Hill vividly described a series of instances in which she claimed Thomas made sexual and romantic advances toward her, despite her repeated demands that he stop. Thomas and his Republican backers contended Hill and her supporters had made the whole thing up to prevent President Ronald Reagan from placing a conservative African American judge, who might vote to weaken civil rights laws, on the Supreme Court.

Clarence Thomas closes his eyes and puts his hand to his head during his hearing regarding the alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill.
Justice Clarence Thomas During Senate Hearings. Corbis Historical / Getty Images

In his testimony, Thomas vehemently denied the allegations, stating, “This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace.” He went on to liken the hearings to “a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.” On October 15, 1991, the Senate confirmed Thomas by a vote of 52–48.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh Overcomes Sexual Assault Claims

People who remembered Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill probably got feelings of déjà vu watching the Senate confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh in October 2018. Soon after the hearings began, the Judiciary Committee was told that research psychologist Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had formally accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a fraternity party in 1982 when she was in high school. In her testimony, Ford claimed that a visibly drunken Kavanaugh had forced her into a bedroom where he pinned her on a bed while attempting to remove her clothes. Expressing her fear that Kavanaugh was going to rape her, Ford added, “I thought he might inadvertently kill me.”

Brett Kavanaugh Sworn In As 114th Supreme Court Justice
Brett Kavanaugh Sworn In As 114th Supreme Court Justice. Getty Images News

In his rebuttal testimony, Kavanaugh angrily denied Ford’s allegations while accusing Democrats in general—and the Clintons specifically—of attempting “a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election.” After a controversial supplemental FBI investigation found no evidence proving Ford’s claim, the Senate voted 50-48 to confirm Kavanaugh’s nomination on October 6, 2018.

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Longley, Robert. "Top 5 Supreme Court Scandals." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 17). Top 5 Supreme Court Scandals. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Top 5 Supreme Court Scandals." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).