Of all the votes by Democratic senators in favor of the nomination of John Roberts to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, none is likely to be more disappointing to progressives than that of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.
Feingold, a maverick Democrat whose increasingly outspoken criticism of the war in Iraq has earned him frequent mentions as a potential candidate for his party's 2008 presidential nomination, was one of three Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to support the Roberts nomination on Thursday.
Along with Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and fellow Wisconsinite Herb Kohl, Feingold joined all of the committee's Republicans in backing the Bush administration nominee. The three Democratic votes on the committee are likely to ease the way for as many as two dozen Senate Democrats to vote to confirm Roberts when the nomination goes to the full Senate.
Feingold's stance is especially significant, as his lonely opposition to the Patriot Act in 2001 and other bold challenges to the administration have marked him as one of the chamber's more courageous defenders of civil rights and civil liberties. As such, his support of Roberts provides other Democrats and moderate Republicans who choose to back the nominee with a measure of cover.
But why would Feingold want to provide that cover?
The senator, who has a record of showing great deference to presidents when it comes to confirming nominees (including that of former Attorney General John Ashcroft), had his excuses. He told the committee, "Judge Roberts's impeccable legal credentials, his reputation and record as a fair-minded person, and his commitment to modesty and respect for precedent have persuaded me that he will not bring an ideological agenda to the position of Chief Justice of the United States and that he should be confirmed."
But, then, in the same statement to the committee, Feingold admitted, "I do not want to minimize the concerns that have been expressed by those who oppose the nomination. I share some of them. Many of my misgivings about this nomination stem from Judge Roberts's refusal to answer many of our reasonable questions. Not only that, he refused to acknowledge that many of the positions he took as a member of the Reagan Administration team were misguided or in some cases even flat-out wrong."
The fact is that Feingold asked some of the best questions of Roberts on those very issues, and he got some of the worst answers.
Unfortunately, Feingold does not appear to have taken those exchanges seriously enough to decide that Roberts failed the test.
One senator who did listen to Feingold's exchanges with the nominee was Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy.
In explaining his decision to vote against Roberts, Kennedy specifically mentioned Feingold's pointed questioning of Roberts.
Recalling the discussion of the Roberts's efforts to block the strengthening of the Voting Rights Act when the nominee served in Ronald Reagan's administration, the Massachusetts senator noted that, "Both Senator Feingold and I tried to find out whether he came to agree with the strengthened Voting Rights Act after President Reagan signed it into law. Even when Senator Feingold asked whether Judge Roberts would acknowledge today that he had been wrong to oppose (limits on the ability of minorities to seek protection under the Voting Rights Act), he refused to give a yes-or-no answer."
Kennedy went on to point out that: "Senator Feingold asked: 'What I'm trying to figure out is, given the fact that you've followed this issue for such a long time, I would think you would have a view at this point about… whether the department was right in seeking to keep the (narrow) intent test (that Roberts lobbied for) or whether time has shown that the (broader) effects test (that was supported by civil rights groups and much of Congress) is really the more appropriate test.'
"Judge Roberts responded, 'I'm certainly not an expert in the area and haven't followed and have no way of evaluating the relative effectiveness of the law as amended or the law as it was prior to 1982.
"So we still don't know whether he supports the basic law against voting practices that result in denying voting rights because of race, national origin, or language minority status."
Feingold's questioning helped Kennedy form his conclusion that, "Based on the record available, there is clear and convincing evidence that Judge Roberts' view of the rule of law would narrow the protection of basic voting rights. The values and perspectives displayed over and over again in his record cast large doubts on his view of the validity of laws that remove barriers to equal opportunity for women, minorities, and the disabled. His record raises serious questions about the power of Congress to pass laws to protect citizens in matters they care about."
Kennedy concluded, appropriately, that it would be irresponsible on any senator -- particularly any progressive senator -- to vote for the Roberts nomination.
Feingold did not choose to embrace the responsibility that Kennedy recognized. Though he asked the right questions, Feingold cast the wrong vote.