Partisans on both sides of the debate over judicial nominees voiced displeasure yesterday with incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid's comments indicating that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could make an acceptable nominee for chief justice.
In an interview Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," the Nevada Democrat said that although he often disagrees with Scalia, he could support him to be chief justice of the United States because he is "one smart guy." Reid qualified his statement, however, saying Scalia first would have to overcome "ethics problems," including his refusal to recuse himself from a case involving the Office of the Vice President after accompanying Vice President Cheney on a duck-hunting trip to Louisiana in January.
Reid's comments startled lobbying groups preparing for the battles sure to come with the likely turnover in the Supreme Court in the near future. Eight of the nine justices are age 65 or older. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, is fighting thyroid cancer and has missed the court's public sessions in recent weeks, generating speculation about who would replace him should he step down.
Members of several liberal activist groups called Reid's office yesterday to seek an explanation of the Democratic leader's comments and to say they would oppose the elevation of Scalia, one of the court's most conservative justices. "We would strongly oppose the nomination of Justice Scalia to chief justice," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way. Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, added that "ethics issues alone" should keep Scalia from becoming chief justice.
Five Democrats on the Judiciary Committee did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment about Reid's statement. Nonetheless, the idea of the Democratic Senate leader backing Scalia for chief justice is anathema to many Democrats in Congress, particularly liberals. "Outrageous," said Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) when asked about Reid's comments indicating possible support for Scalia.
The White House has declined to comment on President Bush's thoughts regarding a replacement for Rehnquist, explaining that no vacancy exists. Meanwhile, some conservative groups are promoting Justice Clarence Thomas for chief justice, a selection that Reid strongly opposes. "I think he has been an embarrassment to the Supreme Court," Reid said of Thomas in the NBC interview.
Thomas and Scalia both adhere to a legal philosophy that pushes aside contemporary context and tries to discern the original intent of the Constitution and statutes at issue in cases before the court. The two justices often vote the same way, although Thomas has proved to be less deferential to court precedent and is regarded as a stronger defender of the First Amendment than Scalia is.
"It is striking that Senator Reid chose to blast Justice Thomas, even while complimenting Justice Scalia, who largely shares the same judicial philosophy," said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, which lobbies in favor of conservative judicial nominees. "A lot of people on the conservative side were pretty steamed up by the senator's remarks."