Democratic Underground

What Lies Beneath?
June 28, 2001
William Rivers Pitt

"Judicial judgment must take deep account of the day before yesterday in order that yesterday may not paralyze today." - Felix Frankfurter, United States Supreme Court Justice (1939-1962)

In this brave new world of 2001, only a fool would believe that the judicial branch of our American government, established by Article III of the Constitution, is free from the taint of political influence.

Nominees to the Federal bench come almost exclusively from the ranks of those who wear out shoe leather for one of the two dominant political parties. Nominations are part of the political patronage system, a device used to dispense rewards to the faithful after victory at the polls is achieved. It is an arrangement as old as Jefferson's quill, practiced aggressively on both sides of the aisle.

Look no further than the august heights of our Supreme Court for proof of this. Each of the Justices has at one time spent blood and sweat for the advancement of either the Democratic or Republican ideological agenda. When one joins the ranks of a party and dedicates a portion of their life to the advancement of that party, it stands to reason that loyalty to that party and its core ideologies are not stripped away upon the donning of a black robe.

Political ideology, therefore, must be considered by the Senate as a part of its advise and consent role in the process of approving judicial nominees. It must be as much a part of the process as the analysis of a nominees' education, rulings, public statements, and financial background.

This nation is ruled by the Judiciary at the end of the day, as was incontrovertibly proven on December 13, 2000. The President may propose or veto legislation, and new laws are created in Congress by the hour. The Judicial branch, however, is the proving ground. One judge may, with the pounding of a gavel, undo years of Presidential or Congressional brickwork. Thus, or entire system lives and dies within the walls of our courtrooms on the words and deeds of those who wear the robe.

A judicial nominee must therefore be placed squarely under the Senate microscope, to ensure that we the people are given the opportunity to fully and completely know who it is that stands to represent the ideals of American law and justice. No questions must be spared, and no areas must be ignored in this pursuit.

Such things can not be left to chance, a crossing of fingers, or a hope that a judge will suddenly become "independent" of such considerations upon their rise to the bench. Such things have happened, of course. But it is better, far better, that we know exactly what we are getting into. The questioning of ideology has always been part of the process, of course. Such mean considerations are never spoken of publicly, however. Senators, flush with the responsibility of deciding who will rise to that all-important branch, speak earnestly of reviewing nominees on the merits of their rulings and education alone. This leads to abuses of power, distortions of judicial or financial records, defamation, hard feelings, and strife.

As Senator Charles Schumer said in a Washington Post article published on June 26, 2001, "It's just that we don't talk about it openly. This unwillingness to openly examine ideology has sometimes led senators who oppose a nominee to seek out non-ideological disqualifying factors, such as small financial improprieties from long ago, to justify their opposition." There are legal experts who claim that lowering the examination of judicial nominees to rank political inquisition will cause the American people to view the Judiciary as just another political institution. These well-educated scholars, sadly, are the Pollyannas of legal society. They seek to avert damage that has already been done. They are trying to protect an ideal that has been on life support for generations, an ideal that was murdered outright last winter in the swamps of Florida and in the chambers of our highest court.

Too often in history, we have been wounded in the pursuit of a dead dream. Best we leave this one where it was slain, and move on to the business of the people.

It is time to openly accept the facts of our political landscape. At the end of the day, ideology is everything. Everyone knows this. Most nominees make it through the Senate out of deference to whatever administration currently resides in the White House. It cannot be denied, however, that the brimstone stench of ideological war stained the air during the nomination brawls of Robert Bork and Ronnie White.

The idea that ideology deserves to be considered has finally clawed its way into daylight with the sudden defection of James Jeffords and the subsequent delivery of majority Senate control to the Democrats. Senate Republicans, stung by the wrenching realization that their clear path towards the unencumbered nomination of conservative judges is now strewn with obstructions, have begun to howl in dismay that ideological considerations be part of the process.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, speaking on the subject of ideological considerations, said in the same Post article quoted above, "The Senate's responsibility to provide advice and consent does not include an ideological litmus test. A nominee's personal opinions are largely irrelevant so long as the nominee can set those opinions aside and follow the law fairly and impartially as a judge."

This is an interesting perspective when compared to recent history. The 1996 Republican National Platform had this to say about the Judiciary: "The American people have lost faith in their courts, and for good reason. Some members of the federal judiciary threaten the safety, the values, and the freedom of law-abiding citizens."

One is forced to wonder whose values the Republicans were referring to when they issued this indictment. Are values not a matter of personal opinion, faith, and ideology? It seems clear from this that the GOP had no problem in 1996 with the idea that the Judiciary should and could be remade according to their own ideological view of America. Concepts of judicial impartiality do not seem to be important here.

Consider, as well, this quote attributed to John Czwartacki, spokesman for Republican Senator Trent Lott, published in 'The Legal Intelligencer' on February 28th, 2000: "The majority leader was also opposed to confirming any judges for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals whom he felt would not return the panel 'to the mainstream.'"

No definition of 'the mainstream' was forthcoming, but one must assume that Mr. Lott's concept of the mainstream depends largely upon his own conservative political ideology, and the ideology of those to whom he is loyal. Mr. Lott was comfortable, however, with determining what was not ideologically 'mainstream'. Until Jeffords awoke on the left side of the bed, Mr. Lott held considerable sway over the establishment of his own personal definition of 'mainstream' within the judiciary. I doubt this troubled him at the time.

Bald-faced hypocrisy is nothing new in American politics. The simple fact is that the GOP, faced with the hard truth that they are not in control of the judicial nomination process anymore, are raising this hue and cry in an attempt to shame the Democratic majority into letting them have whatever they want.

Lott and his compatriots fear, with good reason, that if the American people are informed of the fealty many of these GOP nominees hold for ultra-conservative ideologies, those nominations will die a swift death. Frankly, Trent Lott would not know the political mainstream if he were submerged in it up to his toupee. A Judiciary that best represents the true American political perspective would dwell somewhere in the Center.

This does not serve the conservative GOP agenda, and it is clear from his rantings that Lott has far more loyalty to that agenda than he does to the American people as a whole. If it is not Right, in Lott's view, it is wrong. It therefore makes perfect sense for him to rail against the dying light of his majority control in any way he can. Decrying the consideration of political ideology is today's way, and never mind the hypocrisy. Tomorrow it will be something else.

This sudden argument over the consideration of the ideology of judicial nominees, augmented to cacophony by the outraged howls of thwarted Republicans, serves to help us turn a political corner. Patrick Leahy, with his power as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, should ask the tough questions. Let us see our nominees for who they are, and give ear to what they believe in the inner chambers of their political hearts.

The Judicial branch is political in its foundation, made so by those who choose who shall be nominated, and by those who advise on and consent to that nomination. It is, and has always been, the high ground of our endless political battlefield. It would be nice if it were otherwise, if that all-important branch were free of the scandalous shadow of politics. But it is not, and we should stop fooling ourselves. Open consideration of such things is, at the bottom, a more honest way of doing business.

Ask the tough questions, Chuck. The Republic will endure.

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