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Archive for Monday, July 11, 2005

Bush should surprise Senate

July 11, 2005

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If I were choosing a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, I would pick someone not unlike her: a woman who held her own ground and was willing to vote with the more liberal wing at times and the more conservative wing at other times.

If President Bush wanted to really throw Senate Democrats for a loop, he might find a moderate, black Latina.

Stranger things have happened. Like O'Connor beating Chief Justice William Rehnquist to the exit.

The conventional wisdom was that the chief justice, suffering from thyroid cancer and increasingly frail, would be the first to retire from the court on Bush's watch. Shows us.

Within moments of O'Connor's announcement, the speculation and the spin started bursting into air like fireworks - as well as concern about whether Democrats would filibuster any nominee deemed too conservative.

The president has singled out Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as the kind of jurists - conservative - he most respects. But they are just the sort who would trigger the kind of filibuster fight the Senate wrestled with a few weeks ago, with Democrats threatening to bring all work to a halt if they are steamrolled by Bush and the Republican majority.

In his remarks right after the resignation announcement, the President uttered words designed to avoid setting off too many alarms. "I will select a Supreme Court justice that Americans can be proud of." He also said he wanted a "dignified" confirmation process, "characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote."

Democrats like Sen. Ted Kennedy were quick to praise O'Connor as a model of jurists they could support because, as Kennedy said at a news conference, she was "in the mainstream of conservative judicial thought." But Kennedy followed up with a warning: "If the president abuses his power and nominates someone who threatens to roll back the rights and freedoms of the American people, then the American people will insist that we oppose that nominee and we intend to do so."

Boyden Gray, a Washington insider who had been expected to play a role in pushing through Bush's nomination for a new chief justice, said: "I'm not sure we are as prepared for an O'Connor vacancy." That's no doubt true for the Senate also, but the president wants a new justice in place by October, when the new court term begins.

When O'Connor was selected by then-President Ronald Reagan, that was as proud a moment for many women as had been Lyndon Johnson's choice of Thurgood Marshall as the first black member of the court. Of course, there is no need to think of hers as a woman's seat, but it's a shame that only two women have served on the court.

Thinking like that is certain to drive conservatives like Robert Bork out of their minds. Within moments of the announcement of her resignation, Bork - himself a one-time nominee - was on the airwaves denouncing her as spineless and dismissing the notion that she was, as has oft-been repeated, "a moderate conservative."

Make no mistake: This has the potential to get ugly.

E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

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