I’ve always been interested in the Supreme Court of the United States.
As a student in Jeff Kresge’s social studies class, it was almost a mandate.
In Kresge’s class, as 7th graders utilizing an interactive exercise he designed himself to demonstrate the power of the decisions that come from the Court, we were presented with ultimately the baseline scenarios of what would eventually be the Miranda case, the Roe v. Wade case, and even the Citizens United case and the concept of whether or not speech is equated to money.
All of the above is to say one thing — I’ve had a solid understanding of its magnitude for quite sometime now. Add in a summer internship working at a historical center dedicated to a hometown hero and arguably the best writer the Court has ever seen and BAM — a post-Aaron Sorkin, Season 5 episode of The West Wing tugs every judicial heartstring I have.
A young conservative lion of the Court dies suddenly and President Bartlet and company are faced with their second Supreme Court vacancy of their administration. Potentially, this could have been their third seat to fill had Chief Justice Roy Ashland succumbed to an illness earlier in the season.
The episode harkens back to that same episode as Ashland indicates to the president that he wouldn’t resign due to the fact that he would never be able to appoint another liberal justice to replace him.
Most assume the most recent vacancy will be filled by a moderate so as to ensure an easy confirmation process and seal the deal on the president’s judicial legacy. However, in screening symbolic candidates so as to make the right side of the aisle grateful to them for choosing a moderate candidate, Toby Ziegler and Josh Lyman encounter federal judge and ultra-liberal Evelyn Baker Lang (brilliantly played by Glenn Close).
Lang, who reveals she had had an abortion earlier in her life (post-Roe), understands that for that reason and many others, she’ll never be selected as well as the political realities of the judicial selection process, but both Toby and Josh fall completely in love with her dynamic and eccentric attitude.
However, after hearing Donna tell a story about her parents’ compromise in purchasing two cats after the death of their longtime family cat (as only a Donna story could go), Josh suddenly comes up with the idea for a compromise:
The administration would give judicial selection of the vacant seat to the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee, while also convincing Ashland to retire so as to replace Ashland with Lang.
Confusing, I know (and completely unrealistic in today’s Court).
Ashland loves the idea, but Bartlet is not convinced — especially when the committee responds with the name of ultra-conservative Christopher Mulready (portrayed by Buffalo native William Fichtner).
Even Toby is not convinced, but after witnessing Lang and Mulready interact in the Roosevelt Room, he is able to convince the president that the Court would truly benefit in the longterm from the course of debate through two lions of opposing views.
In a beautiful moment at the end, Toby by way of President Bartlet gets Lang to sign a copy of the 14th Amendment (guaranteeing equal protection under the law). As the first female Chief Justice of the United States, Toby intends to give the signed copy to his daughter Molly so as to prove that anyone can do anything in this country.
Add in a comedic drunken scene with Josh Lyman attempting to sway the ranking Democratic member of the judiciary committee toward the idea (and a performance of “American Pie” by C.J. Cregg), and the writers truly provide one of the most feel-good episodes the series ever sees.
In a way, I feel as though the episode is almost satirical of the way judicial nominees are selected — the insane vetting process involved and the partisanship that exists so much so that it requires a member of the Senate to get drunk to agree to someone of opposite viewpoints being appointed to the Court.
There’s no doubt this situation could ever happen today. President Obama couldn’t even get a hearing for one of the most moderate candidates in the history of the Court in Merrick Garland after Antonin Scalia’s passing in 2016.
But, in a fascinating article by Lisa T. McElroy of Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, she sees stunning parallels between the attitudes from this episode to the whole Scalia situation.
Overall though, the concept of a Supreme Court vacancy always fascinates me and thanks to The West Wing, that fascination has only grown.