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Why Sonia Sotomayor Won't Make History

Like many of her predecessors, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor just endured a grueling question period that will lead to a Senate vote on her confirmation. Though the four-day hearings made the news for some catchy, so-called controversial statements uttered by the – ahem – "wise Latina," Sotomayor's nomination has by no means been one of the Supreme Court's most contentious. From its first assembly in 1789, the country's highest court has seen a number of divisive characters step up to be judged, so to speak, many of whom never made it past the hearings and onto the bench. Four nominees were rejected outright in the past 100 years, while others squeaked in by just a handful of votes. These are some of the most controversial Supreme Court nominees of the past century: Louis Brandeis, 1916

Jewish lawyer Louis Brandeis was nominated to the court at a time when anti-Semitism was still a big factor in politics. Aside from his heritage, Brandeis' opponents disliked his harsh (and radical for the time) criticism of big business and went on a full-throttle attack on Woodrow Wilson's nominee, declaring him unfit to sit on the bench. Their fears would prove unfounded when, after a vote of 47-22, Brandeis was confirmed and went on to become one of the 20th century's most revered justices, serving for 23 years.

Abe Fortas, 1968

Fortas was already serving on the Supreme Court as an associate justice when a vacancy led to his nomination for Chief Justice by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Unfortunately, decisions that Fortas made as part of the liberal wing of the court during the landmark Civil Rights era were fuel for conservatives in the Senate, who blocked his nomination by filibuster as a broader show of disapproval for the court. Robert Bork, 1987

The opposition to this Reagan nominee is so famous that it spawned a verb. Worried about his right-wing record and soft views on civil rights, anti-Bork lobbyists launched an intense public relations campaign to block the nomination in the Senate and were ultimately successful. Since then, any candidate opposed with such organized effort during the confirmation process is now said to be getting "borked."

Clarence Thomas, 1991

The second African-American nominee to the Supreme Court was borked, but prevailed in the end and won his seat in the closest confirmation vote in nearly a century. It wasn't Thomas' race that caused the most controversy during his hearings, but rather his conservative voting history as a judge and then, three days before the decision was to be made, allegations of sexual harassment against a former employee. Samuel Alito, 2006

The most recent nominee prior to Sotomayor was chosen by President George W. Bush when another candidate, Harriet Miers, withdrew herself from consideration after a potent public backlash to her selection. Alito did not have it much easier, opposed most damningly by the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds that his record supported the suppression of American freedoms. Despite a failed filibuster attempt by Sen. John Kerry, Alito was confirmed by a vote of 58-42.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.