Monday, May 10, 2010
The Supreme Court of the United States ("SCOTUS") occupies a role at the heart and soul of American society. As a co-equal branch of government, the Court has consistently been willing to act where Constitutional duty required, but where political strength was weak. The end of the Seperate but Equal doctrine, the right of adults to purchase birth control, the right of those uttering offensive speech to continue to exercise that right, have all been secured by the Court when politicians lacked the spines to do so. By choosing jurists and scholars in love with The Law itself, the great 'American Experiment' has lasted and been strengthened because of the vigilence of an institution that can weather the inflamed but fading passions of mob rule.
From 1900 to approximately 1969, Court nominees were afforded respect by both sides of the aisle. In that time frame, 28 Justices were approved unanimously by voice vote. One was rejected. And only 13 were confirmed with a smattering of 'nay' votes.
It is interesting to note that in that time period, the opposition to some of those Justices would later prove an embarassment:
Louis Brandeis, one of the most brightest legal scholars in the Court's history, was confirmed in 1916 by an unusual "split' vote of 47-22. It is shameful to think now that the nay votes were at least in part generated because he was first Jew nominated the High Court.
Similarly, Thurgood Marshall - the Court's first African-American - would be approved by a split vote of 69-11 in 1967.
When Hugo Black received 16 "no" votes in 1937, it was largely due to rumors (later confirmed) that he had been a member of the Klan in his earlier years. Even those 'no' votes were bipartisan, however, consisting of 10 Republicans and 6 Democrats.
All in all, prior to 1969, 41 of 42 nominees were confirmed....28 (fully 2/3 of them)unanimously.
In the modern era, however, we have chosen to reverse this approach, and we have turned most Court confirmations into a political fight. Between 1969 and today, 19 nominations have been made to the nation's highest Court. Of these, 3 were rejected (Bork, Carswell, and Haynesworth); 1 withdrew from nomination (Harriet Miers in 2005); 10 were confirmed on split votes; and only FIVE (barely one-quarter) were confirmed unanimously. And those five were all before 1987 - over 20 years ago.
We somehow have come to the conclusion in the last few decades that Court appointees should be instruments of Political Doctrine, rather than impartial judges of the Law, and so interest groups from all sides raise funds and wage battle over almost every nominee. Both the Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty of this warfare, and both should be ashamed, as qualified, professional, brilliant judges have received 'no' votes simply based on partisan ideology. Conservatives needlessly withheld 31 votes from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an eminently qualified Jurist, just as liberals withheld 42 votes from Justice Samuel Alito, Jr. on political grounds.
The question before the Senate should not be, "Will this person further our party's legislative agenda?" The question should be, "Is this person qualified to analyze complicated fact patterns and impart sound legal reasoning to actual cases in a way that brings honor the nation's Highest Court?"
By that standard, Kagan is qualified. End of Discussion. Republicans should assent to her confirmation, and reverse the modern trend towards "getting one of ours in."
Once confirmed, I will admit that there is one aspect of the Court's make-up that does raise a flag, and that is the lack of anyone from a protestant background on the court. In a large way, this is indicative of changes in American Society, and from that perspective it is a positive development. On the other hand, depending on the survey quoted, protestants still comprise about 50% of the population. Now, I pesonally do not believe in 'group' politics; I judge induividuals as individuals. But the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor last year began an interesting debate.
Justice Sotomayor was criticized for the following comment she had made:
"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life..."
What Justice Sotomayor suggested is that we are *all* a product of our backgrounds, and bring that background to the table with us. Often, that background gives us insights that others with differing backgrounds might not as readily understand.
I defended her remarks then, and continue to do so now. And so, I believe I am consistent when I suggest that a nation that has many, many devout Protestants may feel unrepresented because the insight that their particular background contributes may not find a voice on the Court. It is a legitimate concern.
But I am forced to wonder how many liberals who defended the 'wise latina' comment will simply dismiss protestant or evangelical concerns as lacking merit.
And I wonder how many conservative protestants who will now lament the loss of a 'protestant perspective' on the bench were willing to raise their voices in agreement when a wise latina woman offered the same arguement as they do now.
Of course, one could simply defend Sotomayor and criticize evangelicals - or vice versa - based on political positioning...an approach that will only perpetuate the destructive politicization of the Judical confirmation process. Better to recognize our diversity and differences and strive for balance...but to confirm Justice nominees based solely on qualifications.