Wednesday, September 21, 2005

qualifications of justices

As many have noted, the hearings were an empty piece of theatre, a ritual without import, without even the redeeming insights of good entertainment. The goal, after all, was never to enlighten or inform, but to prevent enlightenment and to obscure. As Somerby asked, why would Roberts have to recuse himself for expressing views on legal matters when his future co-justices have done so in legal opinions for years?

To me, however, that is not the crowning idiocy of the process and its groundrules. That I reserve for the view often expressed by the White House that the Senate should only consider whether the nominee is a good lawyer. For example, after Senator Reid announced his decision to oppose the nomination, the White House responded:
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, responding to Reid's comments, said, "Judge Roberts is clearly qualified in terms of intellect, ethics and temperament. Â… The public does not want to see the Supreme Court become an extension of partisan politics."
In other words he's smart, he knows how to argue the law, that's all that should matter.

What little I know of law and lawyers, however, tells me otherwise. Lawyers are trained to argue any side of any case. The better the lawyer, the more ably they do so. Legal competence may be a requirement for a seat on the Court (though I believe there have been Justices with limited legal background), but the more skilled the nominee in the law, the more important it is to know who or what he represents. A nominee with only nominal legal skills may find it much more difficult to write a coherent opinion that radically shifts the legal status quo than a brilliant lawyer will not. The greater the legal skills, the more important it is to know the nominee.

Judge Roberts didn't merely refuse to share his views with the Senate Committee, he refused to share his views with the American people. He didn't merely say that the Senators had no right to know him, he said that no one had a right to know him, even as he sought confirmation for a lifetime position at the top of American law. Conservatives have been known to rail against the Court as anti-democratic and elitist. It is hard to imagine a more elitist stance than that taken by Roberts and other Bush nominees.

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