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The Tragedy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death

Liberals and conservatives have each had their own problem that kept them from dominating the Supreme Court. For conservatives, it was justices appointed by Republican presidents who turned out to be less conservative than desired. Some, (Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy), turned into moderates while others drifted further left (David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun).

Liberal presidents were famous for mishandling of Supreme Court transitions. They occasional surrendered seats, leaving them to be filled by a Republican president. In 1968, Lyndon Johnson appointed a personal friend to replace the departing chief justice. But when the nominee failed to meet ethical standards, the seat remained available for Richard Nixon to fill. Hugo Black, in 1971, and Thurgood Marshall, in 1991, retired under Republican presidents and both were replaced by conservative justices. Marshall's replacement, Clarence Thomas, is still on the court today.

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who like Marshall was a civil rights giant who demanded that the United States live up to its ideals, means that liberals have turned over a seat to conservatives. Many legal scholars and writers pleaded with Ginsburg to retire while Barack Obama was president and Democrats still controlled the Senate, but she wanted to remain on the court. Trump and Sessions now will place a sixth conservative member on the nine-member court. The new justice will likely be young, and could remain on the bench for decades, helping to overturn Obamacare, Roe v. Wade, and additional affirmative action laws, and throw out climate legislation.

Bungled Supreme Court transitions aren't the only reason conservatives control the court. The death of Ginsburg will play a role. So does Senator Mitch McConnell's unprecedented refusal to allow Obama to appoint a justice upon Scalia's death. The Electoral College allowing Trump and George W. Bush to become president despite losing the popular vote also matters.

Each seat flipped is crucial, lasting for decades. Each Justice can time their retirement to line up with a president who is similar in ideology. Earl Warren, (liberal chief justice during the 1950s and '60s) understood this and deliberately announced his retirement in 1968. He did not have long to serve on the court and feared that Nixon would win the election later that year. After Johnson failed to replace Warren, that's precisely what happened, and Nixon's choice, Warren Burger, helped undo much of Warren's legacy. The following chief justices, Rehnquist and Roberts, were also conservatives. Johnson's mismanagement of Warren's retirement has resulted in 53 years of conservative chief justices. If Trump replaces Ginsburg, the effect could be staggering.