Senate confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito began today in Washington, D.C., and they're likely to turn into another political mud-wrestling contest.
It doesn't have to be that way, and it wasn't that way when Senate Republicans scrutinized and approved President Clinton's two liberal high court nominees – Stephen Breyer and Ruth Ginsburg. But some Senate Democrats showed in previous hearings involving the nomination of current Chief Justice John Roberts that they're looking for any excuse – no matter how shallow – to vote against President Bush's nominees to the high court.
Roberts, who made a dazzling appearance before the judiciary committee, ultimately was confirmed, and there's no reason why Alito, who is set to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, won't be as well. But the posturing of both conservative and liberal interest groups on the Alito nomination indicates it will be a long, tough process.
A cautious, conscientious judge, Alito is an unlikely character to generate all the heated sparring that has preceded the confirmation hearings. Luckily for him, Alito starts out with a variety of factors in his favor:
– He was nominated by President Bush, a Republican, and Republicans control the Senate by a 55-45 margin.
– While the Senate is an equal partner in the confirmation process, there is a general presumption that, absent some compelling reason, a nominee will be confirmed. After all, presidents are elected based on their political philosophy, and President Bush campaigned on a promise to nominate judicial conservatives to the courts.
– Alito's performance as a lawyer and judge has been outstanding.
Unfortunately, liberal interest groups are trying to portray Alito as an extremist lunatic, and their political influence cannot be underestimated. Many Democratic senators – Illinois U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama among them – fell into lockstep opposition against Chief Justice Roberts to avoid incurring the political wrath of the liberal lobbies. Indeed, every Democratic senator mentioned as a presidential candidate or aspiring to party leadership position will oppose Alito, just as they opposed Roberts. The only exception is Wisconsin's U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold, a politician of rare courage and principle.
So the stage is set for another knockdown, dragout fight, the one that was supposed to occur at the Roberts hearings when media reports were predicting that senators like Durbin were going to tear him to shreds. But Roberts was so excellent in his presentation that Democrats were quickly disarmed, frustrated and angry. Now they get another chance to go for the throat of a judicial nominee, and Alito had better be ready.