Wednesday, September 14, 2005

On hearing things

Okay, so I'll be the first to admit that I'm not entirely well-versed on the process of confirming a Supreme Court justice; I'm no lawyer, and this is no blawg. Part of my ignorance in that case can be chalked up to the fact that the last time a Supreme Court justice was nominated, I was thirteen, he was Steven Breyer and he was confirmed 87-9. Before that was Ruth Bader Ginsberg, when I was twelve, 96-3, and Clarence Thomas, when I was ten, confirmed 52-48 after a contentious hearing that had me giggling every time someone said "pubic hair." Needless to say, this is one of many aspects of the law that's just a little bit beyond my ken.

My question is this: what exactly is the purpose of the confirmation hearings? I know what they're supposed to do; theoretically, they give the Senate Judiciary Committee a chance to ask questions of the nominee and find out what s/he is really about, and they give the nominee a chance to make his/her case for confirmation.

But then John Roberts sits up in front of the Committee and tells them that, past record notwithstanding, he supports a Constitutional right to privacy, stare decisis with regard to Roe v. Wade, and the protection of our civil liberty. However, in his work under the Reagan administration, he referred to a "so-called right to privacy," and said that Roe "was wrongly decided and should be overruled." He also, in the hearings, argued with Ted Kennedy about his (Roberts's) narrow reading of Title IX, saying that Kennedy "did not accurately represent [Roberts's] opinion."

So what gives? Do we take this to mean that his opinions have not just shifted but completely reversed since the Reagan administration, or do we take this to mean that he's only telling the Judiciary Committee what they want to hear? And if the latter is the case, what makes the hearings more than a formality? And if they are just a formality, what can be done to make them actually significant?

Obviously, most hearings suffer from the same problems; a nominee can say anything he wants, and the hearing aren't binding, so if he says, say, that he respects the role of UN ambassador and wants to give the world a Coke, and then he gets confirmed, he can go on to do any damn thing he wants. But UN ambassador is a temp job. Supreme Court justices are nominated for life.

It seems to me that a person's lifetime appointment to the highest court in the country, a court responsible for interpreting the Constitution and setting the precedent on which future rulings will be based, should rely on something more substantial than, "Yeah, I'm totally into liberty. All about liberty. And the Constitution! For serious, you have no idea." Unfortunately, I don't really know what other options are available, 'cause I'm not a lawyer. I know some of y'all are lawyers. Any ideas?

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