Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Or is it a farce? Although for the most part the antipathies between the hard-line Democrats and Republicans have become laughably sad, sometimes it just looks like a silly joke. The most recent stage for them to strut on, working out their private scenarios, has been the matter of Supreme Court nominations. The first act featured John G. Roberts Jr., a man by all accounts fair, intelligent and startlingly mature, in contrast to those anointed to judge him worthy or unworthy. It was a study in contrasts. Roberts spoke with conviction and insight, painstakingly explaining his understanding of the law, responding with lucid directness even to questions that could be seen as hostile. Almost every senator on the Judiciary Committee offered orations, not only in the seemingly endless opening statements, but also in the time allotted for questions. Then there was the senatorial posturing, both in committee and in the senate chambers: the pained earnestness of Durbin, the bombast of Kennedy, the angst of Boxer, the weighty worry of Leahy. As it turned out, Judge Roberts prevailed after all the emoting was finished, the gushing over his brilliance from stage right, the alarm on the far left that he might be a secret Nazi ready to strike down all our liberties.
The Harriet Miers act was dreadful, the only person to emerge with any dignity and grace being the principal actress herself. She was steady in her presence and graceful, even generous, in leaving the stage to the familiar antagonists. Pontificators from the high right questioned her intelligence, even ridiculed her. Senators from the left, while patting her on the back, promised to demand a betrayal of executive privilege as the president’s lawyer. Evangelical conservatives worried about a contribution she made to Al Gore and feared that she was a stealth pro-choicer, like so many other Republican justices. They could not be satisfied by the assurances that she was truly born again, so she left the stage, banished by right and left alike.
We are in the midst of Act Three. Enter Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. The first rumblings from liberals are not reassuring. He is an extremist. He is not mainstream. He is a radical. He is a member of the Old Boy’s Club. The harder-line Republicans, thrilled by the nomination, seem to long for a good polarizing fight. It’ll be a slugfest, said one. We will be one party again, offered another. They seem not to want a principled civil argument, but a clash of clans.
One can be sure that there are opponents to Alito’s nomination who will seek out any suggestion of scandal, expose any questionable aspect of his ethnicity or religion and sound alarms over every previous opinion he may have writtenbut without the crucial context, his nuance or his moderation.
If you want to be totally ideological, even restricting your interest to the issue of abortion alone, you will be able to attack Alito from both sides. The purists of right and left could have a field day. For the extreme pro-choice clan, the very words of his mother condemn the man: Of course he’s against abortion. And in 1991, he ruled that women seeking abortions could be coerced to inform their abusing husbands. (But friends, the more you look into the judgment, the less cold and unsympathetic Alito seems in applying Justice O’Connor’s undue burden principle.)
The extreme pro-life clan can be even more upset. Three times he supported abortion rights, they could say. He supported Medicaid funding for abortion. He does not believe in the wrongful death of a human fetus. He supports partial-birth abortion just for matters of a woman’s health. None of these statements is fully true. No one is fully false, either. One must look and read, deliberate and decide.
There is still time to hope that the Senate Judiciary Committee will mount hearings to do just that. Instead of the canned campaign speeches, they might, each taking a minute, voice the concerns that motivate their questions. Instead of singing his praises and wooing their constituents, they might inquire how, under the law, he could rule in favor of a position that he personally opposes. They might concern themselves with the cohesion of our civil society and not the extremist clamor of right-wing and left-wing clans. Then we would all avoid the fate of hardened ideology.
As Mercutio dies at the hands of Tybalt, Romeo ignorantly making the assault fatal, he three times calls a plague on the warring houses of Montague and Capulet. Amid the curses, he has humor even in death. As to the mortal wound:
No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. a plague o’ both your houses.... Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.
Even sincere souls, mindlessly fixated on their aims and resistant to evidence, wreak harm. In this endless warring of families called political parties, we can only hope that what is killed in the process is only a passing Mercutio or judicial nomination, and not deliberative democracy itself.