Thursday, May 19, 2005

Spoiled Child/Indulgent Parents

Today the Senate began debating George Bush's nomination of Priscilla Owens to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Or rather his renomination as her nomination was rejected by the previous Senate. Or rather, it wasn't so much rejected as blocked by a filibuster by the Democratic minority in the Senate. Of course this is pretty well common knowledge at this point as the news media has been repeating this story for days now. Not to report on the specifics of this nomination or the debate regarding the nomination, but more to report on the Senate "showdown" over the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominations. Historically, minority parties have used the filibuster to block nominations to which they have strong objections. Essentially, a filibuster forces a "supermajority" vote (60 of 100 votes) to allow a nomination or piece of legislation to be voted on. Now personally, I am of the opinion that when it comes to nominations for positions like federal judgeships, approval should always require a supermajority. These are lifetime appointments after all, often serving long after the administration that nominates them is gone. They should have to meet a higher standard and achieve broader approval. But that's just my opinion, and not really the point I'm trying to make here.

After hearing all the media reports about how this nomination was going to bring the Senate to a crisis with the time honored tradition of filibuster on the line, I began to wonder about just who this Priscilla Owens was. Just what, exactly, was the Senate debating? So I did a little research. I encourage everyone out there to do the same. This whole "showdown" is a farce. It's not about Priscilla Owens, it's not about nominees to the federal bench, it's not about activist judges, or extreme conservatism.

Here's the deal: Priscilla Owens is a pretty bad judge. Critics on both sides of the political spectrum agree on this. Her rulings and opinions often ignore the law and are clearly based on her personal beliefs and opinions. She doesn't even attempt to convey an impression of impartiality or objectivism. She accepted considerable campaign contributions from both Haliburton and Enron, and then refused to recuse herself in cases involving both corporations. I don't mention this to suggest ethical impropriety (I'm certain that within her personal value system, there was nothing remotely unethical about those decisions), but simply to illustrate that she isn't a very good judge. She simply doesn't seem to understand (or care about) that in our judicial system we expect our judges to convey the impression of (if not actually embody) certain valued qualities that suggest honor and fairness. But you can read the criticism from both sides - liberals and conservatives, democrats and republicans, yourself. Priscilla Owens is a crappy judge. She shouldn't have a lifetime appointment to a U.S. Court of Appeals.

The fact that Owens is an ultra-conservative, right-wing idealogue is irrelevant - the woman isn't qualified to serve. So why isn't this the central point of the debate? Why does the media focus on the partisan politics, rather than the qualifications of the woman? It's not just because the partisan wrangling makes for a better story, it's that the Republican party wants this to be the focus of the debate. Because there is much more at stake here. It seems to me that the issue is this: the Republican party occupies the White House and holds significant majorities in both houses of Congress, and so Republicans believe that they should control things. In particular, the President clearly believes that he should automatically get everything he wants. In speaking about his judicial nominees he sounds like a spoiled child, "approve them now! you must approve them now!" And the leadership of the party are playing the role of his indulgent parents. "Up and down vote" Bush has cried repreatedly, and the party faithful have rallied around, repeating this words ad-infinitum. With a 55 member majority, "up and down" means "rubber stamp."

Bush expects approval on everything: nominations, budget, social security reform, etc. Forget filibusters, Bush wants an end to debate, to dissent, to the voicing of other opinions. Bush wants, in fact is demanding the very thing feared by our founding fathers - tyranny by the majority. The scary thing is, every day, this country gets a little bit closer to giving him what he wants.

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