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.