Former vice president Al Gore warned yesterday that ending Senate filibusters for judicial nominations would "undermine the rule of law," and charged that Republicans backing the change are in the grip of "an aggressive new strain of right-wing religious zealotry."
In an impassioned and sometimes indignant noon-hour speech to the liberal group MoveOn, Gore said that his role in the bitterly contested 2000 presidential race gives him a unique perspective on the need to respect judicial independence.
"I couldn't have possibly disagreed more strongly with the opinion that I read shortly before midnight that evening, December 12, 2000," he said, referring to the 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision that ended a bitter dispute over Florida's votes and prompted Gore to end his campaign. "But I knew what course of action best served our republic. . . . The demonstrators and counter-demonstrators left the streets, and the nation moved on -- as it should have -- to accept the inauguration of George W. Bush."
He warned, however, that if the GOP-appointed justices who made up the majority in Bush v. Gore also had been approved on party-line votes under rules limiting debate, "then no speech imaginable could have calmed the passions aroused in our country."
Pivoting from his case, Gore accused the Republicans pushing for an end to filibusters of engaging in a campaign for "absolute power." In their zeal, he charged, they are sowing disrespect for the judiciary and trampling the principle of minority rights that is integral to the Senate. "Their grand design is an all-powerful executive using a weakened legislature to fashion a compliant judiciary in its own image," he said.
Gore sought the invitation to speak on the filibuster, an associate said, and consulted with Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and others before staying up late Tuesday with a dictationist, crafting his remarks and researching historical citations and quotations. In his 45-minute appearance at a Capitol Hill hotel, Gore quoted the Federalist Papers, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson's defense of dissent during World War II, and Sir Thomas More (as he was portrayed in the play "A Man for All Seasons.")
Gore made it plain that he has more than passing interest in the Senate's rules. He served there for eight years before becoming vice president, a post that made him the presiding officer of the Senate. His father also served there a generation earlier. He mocked the assertion made by GOP leaders that filibusters have never been used to block judicial nominations, noting that Lyndon B. Johnson's 1968 nomination of Abe Fortas for chief justice -- a nomination Gore's father helped shepherd -- was withdrawn after a cloture vote failed to end a filibuster.
"Never before in history? Hello!" Gore chided. "Repeating it does not make it so."
Gore took aim not just at Republican senators but also at the "virulent faction" of "right-wing religious extremists" that he said now calls the shots in the GOP. In language far more cutting than most current officeholders use, he mentioned two religious political activists by name -- Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and James Dobson of Focus on the Family -- and quoted examples of their anti-judicial rhetoric.
The audience of several hundred gave Gore a standing ovation with his accusation that this "right-wing religious zealotry is a throwback to the intolerance that led to the creation of America in the first place."
"Most people of faith that I know in both parties have had a bellyful of this extremist push to cloak their political agenda in religiosity and mix up their version of religion with their version of right-wing politics and force it on everyone else."
Perkins issued a statement afterward, shooting back that "Al Gore and some of the Democratic senators made this debate about religion; we didn't. Unfortunately, it is clear from Al Gore's comments that he is the one that wants to exclude people from the public square based upon some religious litmus test."