Justice John Roberts’ wise words on Supreme Court and politics

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Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (Photo by Stephanie Dowell~Post-Tribune)

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If Chief Justice John Roberts had his way, the Republican-controlled Senate would quit playing politics and hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.

That is an entirely safe assumption based on remarks Justice Roberts made in a speech last month in which he lamented how politicized the nomination confirmation process has become.

Roberts could not have anticipated the timeliness of his speech, delivered at a Boston law school ten days before Justice Antonin Scalia died. But, as the New York Times reported Monday, his remarks were prescient. And he could do a great service to his country by stepping forward and making the same points again, this time with an actual vacancy on the court and a nominee on the line.

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It would be entirely appropriate for Roberts, as chief judge, to explain to the nation how the Court is being hobbled by the decision of the Senate’s Republican leaders to leave Scalia’s seat unfilled for the better part of a year or longer. Roberts could also reiterate how 20 years of increasingly politicized hearings, in which both Democrats and Republicans have been to blame, damage the court’s legitimacy and authority.

“We don’t work as Democrats or Republicans,” Roberts said, speaking of the court, “and I think it’s a very unfortunate impression the public might get from the confirmation process.”

As reported by the Times, Roberts lamented that qualified nominees once were confirmed with strong bi-partisan support. In 1986, Scalia, widely known as a conservative, was confirmed by a Senate vote of 98 to 0. In 1993, the liberal Ruth Bader Ginsberg was confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3. But confirmation votes for later appointments — Samuel A. Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — were close and fell along party lines.

What Roberts did not talk about at all in Boston might say the most about how bad things have gotten. He addressed the problem of raw politics in confirmation hearings, but not that the Senate might one day refuse even to hold hearings.

Roberts probably never saw it coming, but who did?

The notion that the Senate would flat-out refuse to consider the credentials of any Supreme Court nominee — let alone one as qualified as Judge Merrick Garland — put up by a duly-elected president would have seemed absurd.

Until now.

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