WASHINGTON — The first time President Obama sat down to pick a new Supreme Court justice, surprised aides discovered that he had gone beyond the briefing memos to read the leading candidate’s past judicial rulings. The president, a onetime constitutional law teacher, was in his element, a “legal nerd,” as one aide called him, putting theory into practice.
But if nothing else, the last seven years have made clear to Mr. Obama that the Supreme Court is anything but a nerdy, academic exercise. His currentstandoff with the Senate over replacing Justice Antonin Scalia culminates a profoundly consequential struggle over not just the law, but power, politics and his legacy.
During his two terms in the White House, the Supreme Court has given Mr. Obama fits, given him reprieves and now given him a new mission for his final year in office. He has publicly feuded with the court as few of his modern predecessors have. By one measure, he has enjoyed less success before the court than any president since World War II. But today his unexpected chance to remake the court depends on overcoming the formidable will of Senate Republicans.
“It’s fair to say he’s had a more contentious relationship with the court than any president I can remember, at least since Nixon,” said Curt Levey, a veteran of judicial nomination battles and executive director of the FreedomWorks Foundation, a conservative advocacy group. “This is a fight to the death for control of the Supreme Court.”
Mr. Obama arrives at this fight with a complicated history with the court. Perhaps no president since William Howard Taft, a former judge and future Supreme Court chief justice, entered the White House more immersed in constitutional theory than Mr. Obama, and few in modern times have seen theory explode into political reality more starkly.
Whatever ivory-tower romance Mr. Obama once harbored for the court has been hardened by years of conflict. The court unanimously slapped him down for exceeding his power to make recess appointments. It ruled that he overstepped by trying to force family businesses like Hobby Lobby to pay for insurance coverage of contraceptives despite their religious beliefs. The court also overturned campaign finance laws and part of the Voting Rights Act over his objections.