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President Clinton’s first pick for the high court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, cruised to confirmation by a vote of 96-3, while his second nominee, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, was confirmed 87-9.

But the nomination of Clarence Thomas by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 began a new era in which successful Supreme Court appointments became significantly more political and partisan, say Supreme Court analysts.

Accusations that Justice-to-be Thomas had sexually harassed a former colleague, Anita Hill, led to a bitter partisan debate and almost derailed his Supreme Court bid. He eventually was confirmed him by a vote of 52-48, the narrowest margin for approval in more than a century.

President George W. Bush’s 2005 nomination of Harriet Miers to replace the retiring Justice O’Connor drew heavy criticism from his own party as well as from liberals concerned over her sparse judicial experience.

Ms. Miers eventually withdrew her nomination. Mr. Bush then nominated Justice-to-be Alito who, after intense partisan wrangling, was confirmed by a vote of 58-42 - the second-lowest on the current court.

“This whole [confirmation] process with the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals and now at the district court level is just deteriorating,” Mr. Wheeler said. “I suspect that so much of this is tied up not with the merits of the nominees, but tied up with interest-group politics and a lot of other stuff.”