Thursday, January 12, 2006

Trying to be Fair

The confirmation hearings for potential Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito continue for at least another day. As should come as no surprise to pretty much anyone, Republicans are very much in favor of Alito, while Democrats are deeply suspicious of him. This is amply demonstrated by the nature of the questions that Alito receives. I only have to have the radio on for about 10 seconds, and I can tell whether the Senator asking the questions is a Republican or a Democrat, simply by the tone of the question.

While listening to (and later reading transcripts of) these hearings, I'm often frustrated by what seem to me to be unfair attacks on Judge Alito. This is not a concession I make lightly. I'm very concerned about some of the liberties that might be lost to a conservative Supreme Court ruling. However, there's something disturbing about exchanges like the one Alito had with Senator Ted Kennedy on Tuesday*, when Kennedy badgered Alito about failing to recuse himself in a case involving a group with which Alito holds mutual funds. Alito had just described the situation in his conversation with Senator Orin Hatch. Prior to accepting a Federal Appeals Court position, Alito promised to recuse himself from any case that involved certain companies, one of which was indeed involved in the case in question. While Alito expressed regret at not having recused himself in that case, which came 12 years later, he demonstrated admirably that not only did he do nothing ethically wrong in this case (and in fact, that there was still absolutely no conflict of interest involved), but showed how he far he goes above and beyond the legal requirements in order to avoid even the appearance of such conflict, altering his own office practices to ensure that such an appearance could not have occurred a second time.

Such integrity is hard to find, regardless of political ideology. Yet Senator Kennedy tried to paint a picture of a person who broke promises (having apparently lost the opportunity to paint Alito as a person who decides on cases with which he has a personal interest). Alito pointed out not only that this was a promise made 12 years previously, but that because of the nature of the case, the issue of possible recusal did not even come up (as it does automatically in legal matters of a certain kind). Yet Kennedy pushed even harder, and continued to do so again during yesterday's session, trying to make Alito look as though he were making contradictory statements, when Alito had clearly done no such thing (the most that can be said is that Kennedy was putting Senator Hatch's words in Alito's mouth). This is not helpful, and it makes the Democrats look desperate at best.

But lest we give the other side a free pass, they've taken a few "pot shots" as well. Earlier during yesterday's session, Republican Senator Tom Coburn attacked his opponents on the issue of abortion, calling them "adamantly pro-abortion, pro-the destruction of human life today." (These comments were made in reference to Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, who changed from "pro-life" to "pro-choice" about 15 years ago. Coburn was later taken to task for making these comments in Durbin's absence.) While I know of quite a few people who do indeed favor the continued "right" of a woman to have an abortion, I don't think anyone would call themselves "pro-abortion," much less "pro-the destruction of human life." In fact, it seems pretty much everyone in politics would like to see the number of abortions go down, even if they don't hold the value of the life of the unborn child as high as others. (For my own position on this issue, I refer you to this post.)

I'm sure there are many examples that can be drawn from both sides. The ones I include here merely happen to be the ones I was able to hear on the radio while driving to work (and could later locate the online transcripts for). I tend not to care for language of a "culture war," and often criticize others who use that kind of language. But granting that concept for the moment, none of us can never win the "war" if all we can do is sound like desperate crybabies. The strength of our ideas must be better, and our arguments must be better articulated. Hopefully the tenor of the debate will improve in the hearings that remain.

*All transcript links above are to the New York Times site, which requires free registration. The full transcript for Tuesday can be found via the Washington Post, but you'll have to do considerably more scrolling to find the appropriate part. You can find the Post's full Wednesday transcript at this link. While the Post also asked me to register eventually, I was able to read more before being asked to sign in than at the Times.

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