Here comes the sequel to the Scalia Clones and Thomas Clowns. Karl Rove’s White House laboratory has litmus-tested and shipped another batch of extremist nominees to the Senate Judiciary Committee for its members’ consent, after not asking for their advice. Hearings are expected to begin soon after Congress reconvenes at the end of January.
These nominees will get the deepest possible scrutiny because of a curiously underreported scandal. In a new excess of zealotry, Republican staffers have stooped to snooping–hacking into the computers of Judiciary Committee Democrats Ted Kennedy and Richard Durbin, stealing fifteen confidential memos and disseminating them to “friendly” media outlets like the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Washington Times. The e-mails, whose theft became known only when the Journal‘s editorial page quoted them in November, contained shocking revelations like the fact that Democrats are in touch with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and People for the American Way.
Judiciary Committee chair Orrin Hatch eventually admitted the hacking. He suspended (with pay) one of his own junior staffers and declared himself “mortified” and “shocked,” adding, “There is no excuse that can justify these improper actions.” It now appears that Manuel Miranda, a senior aide to Senate majority leader Bill Frist, distributed the e-mails to right-wing lobbying groups and propaganda outfits. Miranda previously worked for the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee and was a public advocate for defeated Bush nominees like Miguel Estrada.
When reached at home, Miranda took the position that “there was no wrongdoing.” He added, “The bottom line here is that the technology staff of the Democrats was negligent. They put these memos in a shared hard drive. It was like putting the memos on our desk. The Kennedy and Durbin memos are not Senate business. They are collusive, partisan politics. No Senate rule was violated. There was no hacking, no breaking and entering.” Senate Democratic staffers dispute this, saying whoever hacked into their computer files needed a password. The computer invasion is being investigated by Senate sergeant-at-arms William Pickle, who has hired counterespionage expert David Lang.
The combination of more noxious nominations and these dirty tricks has upped the ante in the current judicial filibuster fight, in which the Democrats have so far blocked six Bush nominees. Some evangelical Christian and “family values” pressure groups, plus Senator Trent Lott, are urging Frist to use the “nuclear option” to abolish judicial filibusters. One such option involves having whichever GOP senator is presiding over the Senate at the time rule a filibuster against a nominee out of order and then rule that his position needs only fifty-one votes to be sustained, not the sixty needed to end debate. Some scholars, however, believe the “nuclear option” is unconstitutional and would end up in the courts. Democrats say it will shut down the Senate if used.
Senators Kennedy, Durbin, Charles Schumer, Tom Daschle, Patrick Leahy and their allies began their strategy of filibustering only against what they regarded as “the worst of the worst” Bush nominees in 2002, thinking that what they were attempting was intellectually and morally necessary but that they might pay a price in short-term politics, being seen as obstructionist in the court of public opinion. Now they think they are winning the politics, too. For example, the Washington Post editorial page, which supported Estrada’s nomination, has opposed several recent Bush nominees as outside the mainstream. The Republicans are the ones who are coming across as intolerant fanatics. Democrats have used the filibuster only against a half-dozen out of 175 Bush nominees; by comparison, GOP senators blocked more than sixty of Bill Clinton’s nominees–most by never giving them a hearing or a vote.