Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Sound & Fury Begins

The fight that both sides have been preparing for for a dozen years is finally here. And this should be a particularly gruesome bit of trench warfare, this struggle over filling Justice Sandy O'Conner's seat on the Supreme Court. Not so much because this nominee is more polarizing than Robert Bork. He surely isn't. It's because the country is far more polarized than it was then.

The email contest heated up quickly. My friends on the left beat their rightward counterparts into my email inbox, but just barely. I'm not registered with, but I nevertheless got their message today via a relay from a local progressive/lefty network, Jim Miller's fine What's Up in Northeast Ohio listserv (check it out and sign up yourself
here, if you like). It asked me to sign Moveon's petition against the Bush nominee (thanks, but I'll pass). A couple hours later, I got this note from my friends at the Republican National Committee, with whom I am registered (see the egregious lengths to which a writer must go in order to stay informed?):

Dear John,
It's been over 36 hours since President Bush named Judge John G. Roberts to be the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Judge Roberts is a fair-minded and compassionate jurist who knows his job is to interpret the Constitution, not legislate from the bench. Response to Judge Roberts' nomination has been very positive from Republicans, legal scholars, the media and even some Democrats thanks to actions you took shortly after the President announced his choice. But our work is not done. Liberal interest groups such as NARAL and MoveOn.Org are committed to doing all they can to keep Judge Roberts from the bench...
And on it went, blah, blah, blah. Moving Ideas, a project of the American Prospect, assembled this impressively comprehensive online package for activists who want to oppose the nomination. And the judge's supporters have staked out this competing virtual real estate. Of course, the traditional political media, too, is all on fire. The Nation (here) and Slate (here) have already made up their minds: this guy is a danger. But easily the best early piece about this nominee, by the New Republic's longtime legal affairs expert, the centrist Jeffrey Rosen, in this morning's New York Times (sorry, the op-ed page is no longer free for non-subscribers) nicely captures how the early assumptions of the left might well be all wrong about this nominee.

Even before reading Rosen's take, I'd have to say I wasn't really too worried about this fellow Roberts. With the exceptions of Scalia and Thomas--a couple of creepy, thuggish disciples of the hard right--a familiar thing tends to happen when someone ascends to the highest court in the land. In some circles, it's come to be called the Souter effect, named for the fine, highly principled justice David Souter, whom Ronald Reagan named to the court, only to be later bitterly disappointed about how moderate he would be.

I once had my own life-changing brush with all this. As I've written here before, I had the great, good fortune of covering the U.S. Supreme Court on a daily basis for a couple of years in my snot-nosed 20s. And let me tell you, just being around the place--and I of course wasn't around the place quite in the way that the justices were--shakes you up, and forces you to take things seriously. It's not merely the architectural grandeur of the court--although this architect's son was surely affected by that. It's not just the hushed, brocade-curtained seriousness of the hallways, or of the courtroom itself where cases are argued. Hell, you could feel this energy even in the press room, where a couple dozen writers who cover the beat go about their business in a generally quiet, focused manner, befitting the seriousness of the surroundings.

When one spends any time at this court, you're reminded in the most palpable way of the majesty and greatness of...well, not just the law. You come to have more reverance for American democracy itself--not the messy, humanly imperfect practice of it, but rather the exquisitely calibrated balancing of powers and interests first designed by the founders. And that feeling of quiet reverance is perhaps better captured at the court than anywhere else in Washington, with the possible exception of the Lincoln Memorial. In his prime-time introduction to the nation the other night, Roberts briefly, and oh so eloquently, spoke about the way he'd get a lump in his throat each time he walked those stairs, despite having argued 39 cases before the court. I know what he meant. You simply never lose your awe for this place, and for what it symbolizes. Those wise founders, dead white males all, understood that the power of a lifetime appointment would create almost a new person on the highest court. I think this new nominee will be just fine.


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