More veterans should be nominated to the Supreme Court

More veterans should be nominated to the Supreme Court
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As the Senate Judiciary Committee considers its latest nominee to the Supreme Court, it has basically turned into a combat zone. There are armed guards — the Capitol Police — patrolling the area. Everyone is on edge due to the uncertainty of what bomb — albeit in this case, a metaphorical one — is going to be thrown at them.

Those in the center of it all are, quite literally, scared for their lives. And, those of us who are not directly engaged in the battle watch from a safe distance with horror and disdain.

Although metaphorical combat zones are, of course, different than actual combat zones, the hostile political environment faced by current nominees raises two important question — who has the type of background that is immune to some of these character attacks? And, if the character attacks remain an inevitable part of the political process, who is equipped to handle this kind of combat better than those who have been in combat?


The answer to both questions is our nation's veterans.

There has been a significant push to elect more veterans to Congress and statewide elected offices recently. Organizations like With Honor and the Veterans Campaign support veteran-candidates based on the belief that those who have served their country are less likely to succumb to hyper-partisanship, since they have a demonstrated record of putting their country ahead of their politics.

These organizations also note many of the nation’s most effective and well-respected leaders have been military veterans, from George Washington, to Abraham Lincoln to Dwight D. Eisenhower. This is in part because, as noted by Veterans Campaign,“Veterans possess many qualities our country and communities need in our civic political leaders: A commitment to serve, outstanding leadership experience in the face of adversity, familiarity with a broad cross-section of American society, and an intimate understanding of the human consequences of Washington’s foreign policy decisions.”

The unfortunate reality of our current political atmosphere is that personal attacks are par for the course. However, as some Republican candidates are learning the hard way, it is difficult to oppose a veterans’ service record without sounding dismissive. If we are learning anything from the 2018 election cycle, it is that touting support for veterans does not provide to the same level of appeal to voters as someone who is a veteran themselves.

Military experience continues to be viewed as the most favorable factor for undecided voters in choosing a candidate. Military veterans have a proven track record of, as noted by their service oath, supporting and defending the constitution.  

Isn’t supporting and defending the constitution the single most important thing we also want from our Supreme Court justices?

However, despite the focus and media attention on helping veterans get elected to office, there has been less emphasize on highlighting why veterans are also quality candidates for other higher level political appointments, such as federal judges. The current debate over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination provides an instructive example.

Like Congress, the current makeup of the Supreme Court also suffers from a dearth of veterans, when compared with historical percentages. Although Justice Alito served in the Army Reserves, and Justice Breyer served a six month period on active duty in 1957, there are no justices on the Supreme Court that served on active duty during wartime or participated in combat. The last justice to have any wartime military experience was Justice Stevens, who retired in 2010.

Since our nation’s founding, there have been a total of 113 people who have served on the Supreme Court. According to an analysis by The Atlantic, only 42 of them have been military veterans, or approximately 37 percent.  

However, like Congress, many of the Court’s most well-respected justices came from impressive military backgrounds. John Marshall, who is generally regarded as the architect of the Supreme Court’s judicial review authority, was an officer at Valley Forge. Oliver Wendell Holmes famously fought for the Union is the Civil War as part of the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. And, a handful of justices served in World War II, including Lewis Powell, John Paul Stevens, Byron White, Potter Stewart, William Rehnquist, and John Marshall Harlan.

Since that time, no Supreme Court justice has displayed the type of military record associated with the Greatest generation and their predecessors. We have not had a single Supreme Court Justice, nor any nominee, that has served in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the first Gulf war, nor the current War on Terror.

This fact is only bewildering. But, with no signs of the current atmosphere of political toxicity dissipating anytime soon, history teaches us that those that are best prepared to handle it, and also to fix it, are those with a demonstrated record of serving their country in the U.S. military.

Legal analysts often discuss the need for more diversity on the Supreme Court.  These discussions often center around what I refer to as “visible diversity” — i.e.,  visible characteristics such as gender, race and ethnicity that feed the identity politics vitriol present in so many battles inside the Beltway.

If we not only want to provide meaningful diversity on the Supreme Court, but also ensure a more civil confirmation process, Republicans and Democrats alike should seriously consider nominating more military veterans to our nation’s highest court.

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.