Thursday, November 03, 2005


by Kyle Michaelis
Gentle Ben has made the big time with the contentious nomination of conservative Appeals Court Judge Samuel Alito to the United States Supreme Court. From his position of pre-eminence in the so-called "Gang of 14" that averted the shut-down of the Senate this Spring by reaching a compromise on the judicial filibuster, it seems the eyes of the nation are looking to Nebraska's Senator Nelson for guidance and a hint of what awaits the country during the confirmation process.

So far, Nelson has played it very cool - not hogging the spotlight with grandiose assertions but treating this careful matter with the respect and dignity it deserves.

The New York Times reports:
Facing deep Democratic skepticism over the choice of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the Supreme Court, the Bush administration turned quickly to moderate Democrats who could be crucial to the confirmation as the two sides braced for a polarizing fight over Judge Alito's legal views.

The judge met today with Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a moderate Democrat who helped engineer a Senate pact to break a stalemate this year over judicial nominations. Mr. Nelson told reporters that Judge Alito had given assurances that he would not be "judicial activist" or "take an agenda to the bench" if confirmed....

The administration focus on moderate Democrats from conservative states reflects an early recognition that the debate could grow into a Democratic filibuster - and a Republican effort to overcome it by changing the Senate rules.

The Los Angeles Times adds:
Senators spent much of Tuesday assessing the likelihood of a filibuster and decrying the pressure they are feeling from interest groups.

Progress for America, a conservative group that supports Alito's nomination, launched a two-week, $425,000 television ad campaign on Fox and CNN on Tuesday. A spokeswoman, Jessica Boulanger, said the campaign was aimed at building opposition to a filibuster.

Lawyers for liberal interest groups, some of which already have announced opposition to the nomination, held a briefing for reporters in a Senate office building to lay out their concerns about Alito's decisions and dissents in civil rights, abortion and commerce clause cases.

Such aggressive campaigning so early in the confirmation process distorts it, some senators complained.....

Members of the so-called Gang of 14, the group of maverick Republicans and Democrats expected to play a pivotal role in the nomination, have been guarded in their comments about Alito and the prospects for a filibuster effort.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a founding member, said the group hoped to avoid a close vote on Alito that could put the spotlight on the lawmakers. "All of us in the gang hope that the gang has no role; that would mean that the nomination is successful," he said.

Meanwhile, the AP reveals:
A centrist Democratic senator complimented Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Wednesday as a jurist who won't "hammer away and chisel away" existing law.

While Sen. Ben Nelson did not endorse President Bush's latest nominee for the high court, he did say he was impressed by what he heard from Alito during his introductory visit.

The Nebraska Democrat, who was Alito's first senatorial host Wednesday, told reporters that he got assurances that Alito would not be "judicial activist" or "take an agenda to the bench" if confirmed to succeed Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring.

"He assured me that he wants to go to the bench without a political agenda," said Nelson, one of the founding members of the centrist "Gang of 14" senators who earlier this year worked out a compact aimed at avoiding judicial filibusters except in the direst of circumstances.

Some liberals, pointing to Alito's rulings as a federal appellate court judge on abortion, gun control, the death penalty and other issues have already raised the threat of a filibuster — an attempt to deny the 55-year-old lawyer a yes-or-no vote by the full Senate. Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, and while confirmation requires a simple majority, it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster.

Nelson, one of the 14 centrist senators that Democrats would need to sustain a filibuster, said that Alito "wants to decide each case as it comes before him."

The local Omaha World-Herald chimes in:
After meeting today with Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Jr., Sen. Ben Nelson said he felt a satisfying "comfort level" with Alito, who assured the senator he wouldn't be an activist judge.

The centrist Nebraska Democrat didn't endorse Alito, who was nominated to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

But Nelson seemed upbeat, saying Alito gave an important sign that he wouldn't "take an agenda" to the nation's high court....

Nelson frequently has raised concerns about judicial nominees who seem to rewrite federal laws to suit their views. He said Alito told him he "thought it was the role of a judge and the court to decide cases, rather than make law."

But, the AP strikes back, getting in the final word (for the day):
The 14 centrists who averted a Senate breakdown over judicial nominees last spring are showing signs of splintering on President Bush's latest nominee for the Supreme Court....

The unity of the seven Democrats and the seven Republicans in the "Gang of 14" was all that halted a major filibuster fight between GOP leader Bill Frist and Democratic leader Harry Reid earlier this year over Bush's lower court nominees.

The early defection of two of the group's Republicans, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, could hurt if Democrats decide to attempt a filibuster of Alito, the New Jersey jurist Bush nominated Monday to replace retiring
Sandra Day O'Connor.

If Democrats do filibuster, Frist wants to change the Senate rules to eliminate the delaying tactic — something the centrist group blocked in May....

The centrist Democrats plan to urge their GOP colleagues to withhold judgment, since Alito's nomination is not even officially at the Senate yet. The defection of even two members of the group — which decided earlier in the year to support filibusters only in "extraordinary circumstances" — would virtually ensure that Frist, R-Tenn., would win a showdown.

"The truth of the matter is that it's way too early to talk about extraordinary circumstances," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a founding member of the group. "I'm not hearing any of my colleagues talk about it, and I'd rather not hear any of my colleagues on the other side talk about it as well"....

After a flurry of filibuster talk immediately following Alito's nomination, Senate Democrats now are taking a wait-and-see stance.

"I don't know a single Democrat who is saying that it's time for a filibuster, that we should really consider it," said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, after meeting with Alito on Wednesday. "It's way too early."

Not bad for a day's work, Senator Nelson. This should definitely prove Nelson's worth to the entire nation, as he sets an example of pain-stakingly principled leadership to which, alas, too few of his fellows strive.

That the Republican hype machine is already going on all cylinders trying to force Nelson's hand by making the filibuster the issue rather than Alito's qualifications is a sad testament to their bully-style tactics.

While I trust Nelson's integrity won't be compromised by such partisan-motivated nonsense, it is hard to envision a situation where he is likely to outright vote against Alito's confirmation. But, the fact that he withholds judgment until all the facts are known is a welcome reprieve from Republican platitudes and hyperbole. Nebraska and this whole country deserve better than that in the Senate's constitutional duty to advise and consent.

Of course, I am somewhat troubled by Nelson's willingness to take Alito at his word that he will come to the bench without an agenda and will apply the law rather than remaking it. That is a whole lot of faith to put in this one man - especially taking into consideration that the man who nominated him, President Bush, has made his career since September 11, 2001 abusing peoples' faith in their country for his own political ends.

Ultimately, though, democracy is an act of faith - first in the will of the people, then in the ability of their leaders to govern. Though the Republican Party has repeatedly proven itself undeserving of such trust, conservative Democrat Nelson, by virtue of his deliberate style, gives me some reason to hope that there is still leadership in Washington D.C. that looks beyond scare tactics and ready-made soundbytes.

I want to believe in Senator Nelson. His votes may sometimes infuriate me, but I have little doubt that he does hold the interests of both Nebraska and America close to his heart. Hopefully, in this instance, he will remain objective and critical on the merits of Alito, at least demanding some honest reflection on the great issues that have already come before him - for much of which the American people demand and deserve an accounting.

It is time for an open and honest debate, that we might as a nation examine the place of the courts, the role of the judge, and our entire understanding of the U.S. Constitution. A man like Nelson - more than any of the Republicans and most other Democrats - can help make such a debate a reality. I hope he has the strength and courage to do so, largely by supporting Democratic efforts to secure and encouraging Alito to provide a higher standard of disclosure and a more frank degree of discussion.


Post a Comment

<< Home