Like no president before him, Ronald Reagan invested his time and political capital in reshaping the judiciary, from the Supreme Court to the lowliest district court.
While many prior presidents regarded judgeships as a patronage tool to placate senators, Reagan cast a shadow forward into history by naming judges who would mold the federal bench in his conservative image. In doing so, he forever changed the judicial nominations process.
By contrast, President Bill Clinton saw no point in triggering costly political fights over controversial nominees. And President George W. Bush, through provocative lower court nominations, has used appointments in part to highlight differences with Democrats.
Reagan, who died June 5, left a legacy on the courts that persists: Four of the nine Supreme Court justices were appointed or, in the case of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, elevated by Reagan. And most of the 372 life-tenured judges he appointed are still on the bench.
Reagan began to fill appeals courts with ideological soul mates, many of them from law schools: Frank Easterbrook and Richard Posner on the 7th Circuit, J. Harvie Wilkinson III on the 4th Circuit, Pasco Bowman II on the 8th Circuit, Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia on the D.C. Circuit, and Ralph Winter Jr. on the 2nd Circuit. One of the administration’s goals was to keep an eye on these new judges to see if they would stay the conservative course and become Supreme Court timber. Bork later joked that Reagan had ruined American legal education by raiding its law schools and putting its top conservatives on the bench.