Any doubts about whether the Bush administration’s nominee to become the 17th chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court will win the endorsement of the Senate Judiciary Committee came were removed when the ranking Democrat on the committee, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, said he would join Republicans in supporting the confirmation of John Roberts. Though Leahy asked some of the toughest questions of Roberts during the Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination, and received some of the least-satisfying answers, the senator has now decided to suspend disbelief.
“John Roberts is a man of integrity,” Leahy announced, adding that, “I can only take him at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda.”
Leahy, a former prosecuting attorney, would never have convinced a jury with so lame an expression of confidence in a star witness. But his decision could convince a number of Democrats on the committee — including cautious moderates such as California’s Dianne Feinstein and Wisconsin’s Herb Kohl — to back Roberts. And as many as half of the Senate’s 44 Democratic members may do the same when the full chamber considers the nomination. Certainly, the announcement by so-called Senate Democratic “Leader” Harry Reid, D-Nevada, that he will oppose Roberts’s confirmation will not have much impact.
Indeed, there is some serious speculation that the Reid-Leahy split — coming with a 24-hour period — is meant to comfort the Democratic party’s anti-Roberts base while at the same time signaling to wavering Senate Democrats that they are essentially free to back Roberts. Within the Democratic Caucus, there is some sentiment for the view that members should vote to confirm Roberts in order to appear cooperative with the Bush administration when it comes to high court nominations. That, the theory goes, will make Democratic opposition to a conservative replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor more credible.
The awareness that such calculations are in play led to a good deal of snickering when Leahy, who is nothing if he is not an able politicial player, claimed to be “voting my conscience” with his endorsement of Roberts. Even Leahy seemed to be dubious about his stance, as the senator admitted to lingering concerns that Roberts will, as chief justice, be too deferential to presidential authority. (Leahy’s suggestion that his concerns were somewhat alleviated by the fact that Roberts is an admirer of the late Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson was comic. It is true that Jackson was involved in a high-profile challenge to presidential authority in 1952, when he backed a Supreme Court ruling to block an attempt by then-President Harry Truman to seize and operate U.S. steel mills for the supposed purpose of maintaining production of needed munitions during the Korean War. But the fact that Roberts, perhaps the most pro-corporate nominee in the history of the court, respects a jurist who chose to prevent the government from meddling in the affairs of major corporations can hardly be called “reassuring.”)