A Victim of His Times
As the nation comes to the end of the nomination of a another member to a seat on the highest court in the nation, let us take a look back thirty-six years ago when one East Central Georgian underwent one of the first all out assaults upon a nominee to the Supreme Court. This is the story of Judge G. Harrold Carswell, a native of Wilkinson County, Georgia, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon in the winter of 1970.
G. Harrold Carswell was born in Irwinton, Georgia on December 22, 1919. His father, George Henry Carswell, was a former democratic stalwart and Secretary of State of Georgia from 1928 to 1931. He attended local schools and also in Bainbridge, Georgia before entering Duke University, from which he graduated in 1941. Carswell served in the Navy in the Pacific Theater during World War II. After the war, Carswell attended law school at Mercer University, graduating in 1948.
During his studies at Mercer, Carswell served as the editor of "The Irwinton Bulletin," a newspaper established by his father in 1895. It was during the summer of 1948 when Carswell launched his first political campaign for the Georgia House of Representatives. In the post war South, a political candidate could not expect to get elected without justifying the resolute, but overly misguided, essentials of segregation. In editorials and public speeches, Carswell proclaimed the ideal of the principles of white supremacy. In a speech in Gordon, he said "Segregation of the races is proper and only practical and correct way of life in our states. I have so believed and shall always act."
Ironically, he would later be lambasted for a similar position taken ninety years earlier when an Illinois Republican candidate said, " I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races--that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together in terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior. I am as much as any other man in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race." The candidate proclaimed his position in his sixth debate with Stephen Douglas. That candidate was the future president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
Harrold Carswell married his high school sweetheart, Virginia Simmons of Bainbridge. Her father, Jack W. Simmons, was the owner of the Elberta Box and Crate Company, one of the largest producers of wooden fruit and vegetable crates in the country and a company founded by her great grandfather John M. Simmons, a former Dublin lumber mill owner. Another great grandfather was the Rev. W.S. Ramsay, the beloved long time minister of the First Baptist Church of Dublin, Laurens County's first school superintendent, and at Lt. Colonel in the 14th Georgia Infantry.
Carswell lost the 1948 election. Broken by his defeat, he moved to Tallahassee, Florida to begin the private practice of law. Originally, a Democrat, Carswell supported Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 election. Following Eisenhower's victory, Carswell was appointed by the new president as the U.S. Attorney for the Wester District of Florida. He and his wife joined the Republican party in the early 1950s. In 1958, President Eisenhower appointed Carswell as Federal District Court Judge. At the age of 38, Judge Carswell was the youngest Federal Court judge in the nation.
During his eleven year tenure on the Federal bench, Judge Carswell heard a variety of cases dealing with the rapidly changing social conditions during the volatile decade of the 1960s. In the spring of 1969, President Richard Nixon, in one of his first judicial appointments, nominated Judge Carswell to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, with no public objections.
On January 19, 1970, President Nixon announced that he would nominate Judge Carswell to succeed Justice Abe Fortas on the Supreme Court. His nomination of Clement Haynsworth was denied because of vigorous complaints from labor interests. Almost immediately, Carswell's life was opened to a meticulous inspection by journalists and became ammunition of the President's critics.
Primarily Judge Carswell was attacked for his segregationist views of the late 1940s, a position that he regretted in later life and one which he denounced. Ironically, Justice Hugo Black, one of the court's most admired jurists, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his younger years. Despite the fact that he was branded as an avowed racist, Judge Carswell had ruled in favor of black defendants in many Federal cases. Despite the attacks on his early political beliefs, Carswell's nomination was still on track for approval. Minor detractors lambasted the nominee for failing to disclose his wife's interest in the Elberta Box and Crate Company, a mere seventy eight shares. Still others attacked his credentials and legal ability as a result of the number of his decisions which were overturned by the district court. One defender Sen. Roman Hruska tried to defend Carswell by saying, "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges, lawyers and people and they are entitled to a little representation and a chance."
In spite of the constant attacks on his moral character and legal ability, Judge Carswell was approved by the American Bar Association. His nomination was approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee by a 13-4 vote. Still objections to his confirmation continued. His seat on the court seem assured in a late pre confirmation vote.
On April 8, 1970, the nomination came up for a full vote before the United States Senate. Only two other Supreme Court justices in the 20th Century had their nominations rejected by the Senate. With ninety six senators present and voting, Carswell's nomination was defeated by a margin of 51 to 45. 17 Democrats and 38 Republicans voted for Carswell. His defeat was sealed by 13 Republicans who broke from their party's leader and voted against the embattled nominee. Had only four of his fellow Republicans voted for him, Carswell would have been approved by a margin of 49 to 47.
Obviously disappointed in his rejection by the Senate, Judge Carswell returned to his seat on the bench of the Court of Appeals. After he lost a bid for a seat as a U.S. Senator from Florida later that summer, Judge Carswell returned to the private practice of law.
Judge Harold Carswell died on July 31, 1992 in a Tallahassee hospital following a struggle with lung cancer. His opportunity for judicial immortality in a more enlightened and tolerant world was quelled by the prevailing beliefs in the era in which he came into adulthood. Ultimately it is up to all of us to treat everyone equally and fairly. However, the onslaught of political castigations that condemned the judge makes many wonder if being subjected to the soul scrutinizing inquests of political antagonists is worth it.