Extraordinary Circumstances Indeed

Why the Senate needs to block Samuel Alito.


Remember the “nuclear option” compromise? When the group of 14 Senators
reached their agreement last May, they said they’d support a filibuster only
under “extraordinary circumstances,” presumably if Bush nominated Attila the
Hun. I’d suggest these circumstances apply not only to Samuel Alito’s track
record but also to his nomination’s entire political context.

In threatening to end the Senate’s ability to filibuster judges, Republican
leaders talk much about high principle, the right of presidents to have
their nominees accepted or rejected without parliamentary obstructions. But
the sole principle behind this proposed change is that of the power grab.
The Republicans control the White House and Senate. They’re attempting to
consolidate control in every way they can, including trying to obliterate
200 years of Senate tradition on the filibuster. This threat isn’t a moral
stand: Republicans have filibustered nominees themselves. It’s just one more
in a series of attacks on individuals and institutions that they’ve viewed as
political obstacles, like Tom DeLay’s mid-census gerrymandering, the leaking
of Valerie Plame’s identity, the jamming of Democratic phone banks, and the
branding of political opponents as unpatriotic. Honorable conservatives used
to warn against the raw power of the state. But the love of power has now
become the political right’s prime gospel, making the slightest notion of
checks or balances heretical treason. Republican leaders work to end the
filibuster not because they believe it violates some deep constitutional
mandate, but because they believe they can get away with it.

But maybe they can’t anymore. When Republicans first floated the “nuclear
option” threat in early 2005, Bush’s polling numbers were as high as 57
percent. His support has dropped steadily since, in the wake of the Katrina
disaster, the legal problems of DeLay, Bill Frist, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby,
and Duke Cunningham, and an Iraqi quagmire that’s inspired powerful
challenges by Cindy Sheehan and Congressman John Murtha. Republicans have
lost key electoral battles in Virginia, New Jersey and California. Bush’s
polls have dropped as low as 37 percent. With once-solid Republican Senate
and House seats now seemingly vulnerable, those who vote to eliminate the
filibuster and confirm Alito will be taking far more of a political risk
than they would have just a year ago.

Were Alito a reasonable Supreme Court choice, all this would be moot. But he
isn’t. He’ll follow the script and evade specifics at his confirmation
hearings, but he’s still the candidate nominated to appease the political
right because they deemed Harriet Miers insufficiently hard-line.
Consistently opposing the federal government’s right to address corporate
abuses, Alito has argued for virtually unlimited executive power, including
the government’s right to intervene in the most intimate realms of personal
life. He’s endorsed the rights of police to shoot an unarmed 15-year-old who
was fleeing after breaking into a house, defended the refusal of state
employers to pay damages for violating the Family and Medical Leave Act, and
said it created no undue burden if husbands could prevent their wives from
getting abortions. Citizen groups, he’s ruled, have no standing to sue
convicted polluters under the Clean Water Act. The federal government, he’s
argued, has no right to pass national consumer protection legislation aimed
at preventing odometer fraud or banning the sales of machine guns. Regarding
the exclusion of blacks from juries in death penalty cases, he’s called the
statistical evidence as inconsequential as the disproportionate number of
recent U.S. presidents who’ve been left-handed. In one case, Alito’s Third
Circuit colleagues said the federal law prohibiting employment
discrimination “would be eviscerated if our analysis were to halt where
[Judge Alito] suggests.”

Alito now downplays his membership in a Princeton alumni group so hostile to
the admission of women and minorities that even Senate Majority Leader Frist
condemned it. He dismisses as mere job-seeking his declarations, while
applying to the Reagan-era Justice Department, that the Constitution does
not protect a woman’s right to choose an abortion, and that he disagreed
with the Warren Court rulings that desegregated schools and expanded voting
rights. He’s trying to dismiss the memo he wrote, after getting the job,
embracing the “goals of bringing about the eventual overturning of Roe v.
Wade.” He also minimizes the breaking of his pledge to recuse himself from
cases involving his sister’s law firm.

It’s precisely because Alito’s presence on the Court is so potentially
damaging that Democrats and moderate Republicans have a responsibility to
challenge his nomination through every possible mechanism, including the
filibuster. Republican leaders who try to eliminate it as a political option
need to be branded, along with every Senator who supports them, as embodying
a politics that believes in nothing except its own right to power. With
Roberts, senators could say they were replacing the equally conservative
William Rehnquist. To support Alito, we need to make clear, is to alter the
balance on the Court radically for the most dubious of political ends. It
does no good to reserve the right to filibuster in theory. If our senators
aren’t willing to risk using it in a situation this exceptional, it becomes
practically meaningless.

Senators accept a president’s court nominations for three reasons: They
respect the perspectives of their nominees; they believe a president, as America’s legitimately elected leader, has the right to choose whomever they please; or they fear the president’s political power. But this
administration has no moral standing to which senators should automatically
defer. Bush gained the presidency through the extraordinary interventions of
his brother Jeb and the existing Supreme Court. He was reelected based on
lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, ties between Saddam Hussein
and Al Qaida, John Kerry’s war record, and the true costs of his tax cut and
prescription drug plans. And through Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell’s
elimination of 300,000 overwhelmingly Democratic voters from the Ohio rolls
and the withholding of voting machines from key Democratic precincts. My
friend Egil Krogh, who worked in the Nixon administration, hired G. Gordon
Liddy, and went to prison for Watergate, told the sentencing judge that he
and his colleagues had “almost destroyed democracy.” The Bush people, he
said to me recently, “are even more ruthless.”

Alito’s nomination embodies that ruthlessness. His track
record suggests that, if confirmed, he’d support the Republican consolidation of power at every
opportunity. But maybe the capacity of that power to intimidate is finally
beginning to wane. If the Senate can find the courage to block Alito’s
confirmation, they will draw a critical line on a choice whose effects could
echo for the next forty years. They need to recognize the high stakes and
extraordinary circumstances of our time.