Susan Lucci in Judicial Robes
A brief history of Edith Jones, eternal Supreme Court also-ran.
And once again, the Supreme Court nominee is … not Edith Jones.
Edith Jones, a judge for the Fifth U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, is to the Supreme Court as Susan Lucci is to the daytime Emmys and Philip Roth is to the Nobel Prize. Well, not precisely. Lucci finally won an Emmy in 1999, after 18 previous nominations. And Roth's chances of finally winning the Nobel are currently thought to be on an upswing. Jones, on the other hand, is starting to look like damaged goods.
Presidents have been not choosing Jones since 1987, when Ronald Reagan, now deceased, was trying to figure out who to nominate for the Supreme Court after the Senate rejected Robert Bork. Jones' name turned up on a list of possible nominees reported by United Press International in late October 1987; she was a particular favorite, reported the New York Times, of Sen Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah. But Reagan nominated Douglas Ginsburg instead. Then Ginsburg admitted that he'd smoked marijuana in the 1960s and 1970s, and he had to withdraw his nomination. Once again, Jones was reported to be under consideration. But the nod went to Anthony Kennedy.
Jones' name got mentioned even when there weren't any vacancies. In December 1989, the "Washington Whispers" column in U.S. News & World Report, noting that the Supreme Court included three octogenarians, said there was bound to be a retirement soon and mentioned Jones among the leading candidates. Six months later, Ethan Bronner of the Boston Globe reported speculation that Sandra Day O'Connor, who had recently been treated for breast cancer, would step down and be replaced by one of three women. One was Edith Jones. A couple of weeks after that, U.S. News once again said that Jones was a logical choice for the court. One obvious advantage Jones enjoyed was that she had once been a law partner of Bush's secretary of state and close friend, Jim Baker.
Not long after, in late July 1990, one of the octogenarians finally retired. William Brennan called it a day, and once again the list of possible candidates included Edith Jones, now a favorite of the anti-abortion movement, though she had never ruled in an abortion case. But some newspaper accounts described her as "moderate." Hatch was still touting Jones. The nomination went to David Souter. According to the Washington Post, Jones was "the runner-up."
A year passed. Richard Thornburgh resigned as attorney general so he could run for the Senate from Pennsylvania. (He lost.) U.S. News floated Jones as a possible replacement. I forget who got the job instead. (Wait, it's coming...William Barr.) Then a second octogenarian, Thurgood Marshall, retired. Jones was widely mentioned as a possible nominee. But the nomination went to Clarence Thomas. At a press conference, President George H.W. Bush was asked why he hadn't chosen Jones, who had so narrowly missed being nominated for Brennan's seat. "Well, she's a very able justice, judge," Bush said.
She was given consideration then and now, and I just felt that Judge Thomas with his seasoning now is best prepared to serve. It was that. It was not a demeaning or putting down of anybody else, because there were some very good names brought to my attention.
And I might say, you know, this just happened last week, and some will be saying, "Well, was the screening process thorough?" And the point I want to make is that I have met several times since Judge Souter's sending to the bench to discuss what would happen if a Supreme Court Justice stepped down, with no one particularly in mind, but just to be ready. So, consideration was given to a wide array of candidates, but we'd already done a lot of homework.
But you ask about Edith—Edith, who comes from my hometown. And I have nothing but high regard and high esteem for her. But I decided, on the advice of people that I trust, that this is the way to go.
By now, Bronner at the Globe was calling Jones "the eternal bridesmaid." And it was only 1991!
What the hell was the matter with this woman, anyway? According to the National Law Journal, Jones was now a "far-right ideologue." The Bush administration worried that she'd be another Robert Bork—a magnet for liberal criticism who would go down in flames.
Then Bill Clinton got elected and everybody stopped talking about Edith Jones' chances of getting onto the Supreme Court.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Edith Jones courtesy KRT.