The Times Does Supreme Court History

On Wednesday, the New York Times published an article on the impending nomination of a replacement for Justice Scalia headlined Should Obama Pick Nominee? Your Answer May Depend on How Much History You Know. The point of the piece was to suggest that better-informed people–those who know the most about history!–want the choice of the next justice to be President Obama’s. No surprise there.

What’s funny about this is that the Times can’t get its own Supreme Court history straight. Thus this paragraph, which is revised from the original:

The last time a vacancy occurred during a president’s last year in office was almost 50 years ago, under Lyndon B. Johnson (although the vacancy occurred later, in June).

I haven’t been able to recover the original version via the Wayback Machine, but yesterday the paper added this correction:

Correction: February 19, 2016

An Upshot article on Wednesday about the effect of historical knowledge on views in a poll on how to proceed with replacing Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court misstated the number of terms served by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was the last president to have a Supreme Court vacancy occur during his last year in office. After completing the term of John F. Kennedy, President Johnson had one term of his own, not two.

Do reporters and editors at the Times really not remember that Johnson was eligible for a second full term, but chose to withdraw from the race after Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary? Apparently not. And they lecture the rest of us about knowledge of history!

Note, too, that the correction is still wrong. As we pointed out here, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced in 1968 that he would retire upon confirmation of his successor. When Johnson’s nomination of Associate Justice Abe Fortas to be chief was filibustered by the Republicans, Warren remained on the court. There was no vacancy until the following year, when President Nixon appointed Warren’s successor, Warren Burger.

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