Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Better Way to Confirm Supreme Court Justices

Was it just me who was thoroughly frustrated at watching the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings because of her total unwillingness to address any issues that could be viewed as controversial?

Apparently not. Even the New York Times which is solidly behind Sotomayor is every bit as frustrated as they wrote in their editorial
The Sotomayor Nomination.

We were disappointed that at her confirmation hearings last week, she continued what is becoming an unbreakable habit of nominees dodging controversy.

Since the fevered battle over Judge Robert Bork’s judicial nomination in 1987, the goal for judicial nominees has been to skate through by saying as little as possible as politely as possible.

Judge Sotomayor did that, including on substantive legal issues. She avoided saying much of substance about abortion rights, the scope of presidential power, and other hot-button issues. It’s not entirely her fault. The Senate has shown repeatedly that it will tolerate this sort of evasion. But the public has a right to know where judicial nominees stand on important legal issues that will have a direct impact on their lives.
The Founding Fathers gave the Supreme Court justices a tremendous amount of power. The decisions they make can have a profound influence on so many of our lives. And once they are seated, unlike those in the Executive and Legislative branches, they do not answer to anybody including the voters. Their decisions are not reviewable (unless they agree to do so) and they have lifetime terms. This is as close to absolute power as anyone can have in a representative democracy like the United States.

The only Constitutional check and balance on the Supreme Court comes before a judge is confirmed.
The President makes the nomination of the judge and then the Senate must approve it. So it stands to reason that the Senate nomination hearings for the Supreme Court are a most important government function. Or at least they should be. But instead they have turned them into a joke consisting of evasive nominees along with Senators who use their TV time to grandstand before the camera.

The excuse for evading questions is based on the premise that an issue could well be decided in a coming session which is fair enough — to a point. But the number of issues that can be brought in front of the court are in theory, limitless. And nominees have used this argument to evade talking about just about anything that they feel may upset the applecart and jeopardize their nomination.

Asking how they would rule on a certain case may well be out of bounds. But asking about the nominee’s judicial and political philosophies should be fair game. After all, other than measuring the nominee’s competence, judicial and political philosophies are all we have to work with in deciding whether to confer the tremendous amount of power on that person by approving his or her nomination.

And while we all agree that the President must appoint a competent person to the Supreme Court and not a crony like
Harriet Miers, determining the nominee’s judicial and political philosophies are no less important and deserve equal scrutiny.

This is about so much more than whether the nominee is a liberal or conservative. It goes without saying that a Democratic president will tend to nominate somebody more liberal and a Republican will nominate somebody more conservative. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. After all, this is one reason many of us vote for or against a particular presidential candidate. The question is not whether a nominee is liberal or conservative but how far from the mainstream that person’s views are. The idea of a political or judicial extremist on either side of the political spectrum getting a lifetime appointment no matter how legally competent they are is frankly, quite scary.

Rightly or wrongly, the aforementioned battle and ultimate rejection of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court was based on the belief that he was an extremist in his philosophies. Unfortunately, with the extreme partisan atmosphere in Washington, nominees have decided that any views that may be controversial are worth hiding. And while we for example, applaud the appointment of female and minority judges to help provide balance with the white males who predominate the Court, we have no real way to determine how or whether this will affect the way they perform as judges.

There is only one way out of this. There has to be a bipartisan agreement among the leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee that conducts the hearings that wholesale evasion of legitimate philosophical questions on the part of the nominee is grounds for rejection no matter how competent the nominee may be. This is after all a job interview. Surely a company interviewing a jobseeker has the right to not only determine the person’s competence but also the person’s attitude in determining fitness for the position.

It was Chief Justice Roberts who said in his confirmation hearings that judges are like umpires in a baseball game who only call balls and strikes. But his consistently conservative decisions thus far are proof enough that personal philosophies do indeed drive their decisions. Before granting a lifetime appointment to such a powerful position, isn’t it only fair that we find out what those philosophies are?

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