- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

No one should be surprised the Senate Democratic leader would oppose confirmation of John Roberts as chief justice of the United States. It is what our elected lawmakers do best — capitulate to special interests.

There was no reason to think otherwise for Harry Reid of Nevada, even if he does come from a state that went for George W. Bush in the last election.

In the annals of modern confirmation hearings, few nominees have shown more mental agility than Judge Roberts, who calmly parried the thrusts of Senate Judiciary Committee inquisitors. One actually began believing him overqualified, particularly given the current court’s intellectual make-up.

His refusal to give opponents the ammunition they needed to prove him a reactionary conservative bent on turning back the clock to pre-Civil War days left most of the Democrats frustrated and unsure whether to mindlessly follow the leader or hold their fire until the next appointment to the court.

Another nominee is expected soon, and some of the more moderate senators are convinced voting against someone of Judge Roberts’ obvious qualifications would cost Democrats the needed credibility to oppose a far more conservative nominee to fill the seat left by the retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Good thinking. New York Sen. Charles Schumer’s approach of voting against most nominees for any job solely because they were selected by a Republican president is looking more like obstructionism than loyal opposition.

If there is any doubt Mr. Reid was responding to the pressure of groups with a big say in his party’s policies, it was dispelled by his announcement came after he was visited by members of such organizations urging him to lead the effort against Judge Roberts. Their perceptions of the nominee, of course, have been based on his writings as a young lawyer who reinforced positions in the Reagan White House 25 years ago. Judge Roberts repudiated some of these and explained away others.

Certainly nothing he said during the confirmation hearings would give much pause for concern — in fact, just the opposite. At least, that’s the way it came across to the average American who, unlike those with a sophisticated understanding of constitutional nuances, found his responses, while at times necessarily guarded, as forthright as possible under the circumstances.

No nominee named by a president of either party for such an exalted judicial position is about to say — and shouldn’t say — how he would vote on cases likely to come before him.

Mr. Reid said he did not expect fellow Democrats to be bound by his decision, and that they should vote their conscience. Vermont’s Sen. Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said he would do just that and support Judge Roberts, which he did Thursday when the Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 to support the nomination. Mr. Reid made it fairly clear he wasn’t all that comfortable with his own decision, but there is a tradition to uphold here — the extreme partisanship that has developed over the last 20 years.

The relative calm of the Roberts process, though his opponents had weeks to try to find a smoking gun to shoot down the nomination, is an anomaly. It isn’t likely to be repeated in the next go-round, especially if the choice is one of several clearly conservative prospects.

The Sturm und Drang that would result might not even be limited to the Democrats if the nominee is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whom conservatives oppose. That would produce some strange bedfellows, Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats, not often seen these days.

If Mr. Bush names one of the federal judges whose confirmations to their current jobs were held up for months until a much-heralded compromise, it would set off a major confirmation fight and probable result in a filibuster.

Mr. Reid would have served his party’s interests if he had announced he was voting for Judge Roberts. That would have gone a long way toward dispelling notions that Democrats unfairly oppose any Bush nominee, well-qualified or not. Judge Roberts is an easy hurdle to clear; the next will not be.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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