Unsurprisingly, Supreme Court nominations have become politically controversial. Liberals have tried to block the nominations of those they think might overturn decisions they like. Conservatives have noted with dismay that nominees who were considered conservative become, some time after confirmation, staunch liberals.
This is partly a function of the unrepresentativeness of the court. Its members are drawn from a small segment of society -- elite lawyer -- and tend to crave the good opinion of editorial writers, law school professors and Georgetown hostesses -- all liberal constituencies.
Each justice is provided with four 20-something law clerks who are recent graduates of elite law schools; the late Justice Harry Blackmun, as Linda Greenhouse's recent book shows, became something of a creature of his left-leaning clerks. It's no surprise that over the past half-century, lots of justices have moved left and few or none have moved right.
Until Tony Blair's 1999 reforms, the House of Lords had the opposite institutional bias: Its hereditary peers made it eternally conservative. Blair's reforms reduce the number of voting hereditary peers to 90, and they are now outnumbered by life peers -- people of distinction from a variety of fields -- and so no party has a majority. Interestingly, this has made the Lords more willing to disagree with the Commons.
In the United States, justices have typically felt little compunction about overturning laws and making public policy, and have been rewarded with copious praise when they do.
Conservatives are hoping that George W. Bush will appoint justices immune to the temptations that have moved their predecessors to the left. They fear that the man who may be the leading candidate, his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, is one who can't resist.
Liberals hope for just such a person and will oppose anyone they think won't succumb. That's what's at the heart of the fight over the composition and character of our House of Lords.