FOR YEARS NOW, the judicial confirmation process has been deteriorating at the hands of both political parties. Senators of both parties wax indignant at the other side's misdeeds while remaining blind to their own. Both sides manipulate numbers that flatter neither. President Bush has steadfastly refused to compromise with respect to courts even where Democrats have a strong and justified sense of grievance. A process designed to ensure an independent and well-qualified judiciary instead mistreats nominees and threatens the values it was designed to protect.
The new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), says he wants to reverse the downward spiral. Mr. Specter has never been a warrior in the judicial nomination battles; he did not help obstruct President Bill Clinton's nominees, for example. And though he supported some Bush nominees we believed to be unqualified, he is still deeply resented in some conservative circles for his vote against Robert H. Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. But judging from his comments to the Post editorial board Wednesday and at a news conference yesterday, he appears to be flirting with a role far more important than independent-minded noncombatant. He is seeking to restore the process to health -- and both parties ought to pay heed.
As a first step, Mr. Specter has honestly described both parties' complicity in creating the current impasse, something that neither of his predecessors, Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), even attempted. The Democrats mistreated some nominees in the 1980s and early 1990s, he says; the Republicans made it worse during the Clinton administration, and the Democrats have upped the ante during the Bush administration. Mr. Specter rightly criticized Democrats for not distinguishing between genuinely problematic nominees and well-qualified conservatives, and for their profligate use of the filibuster. Yet he also hinted at opposition to Republican threats to deploy a "nuclear" option to end the filibuster's use entirely. Mr. Specter said such a move would threaten minority rights in the Senate, potentially on legislation as well as nominations; it would leave the Senate "in turmoil" and make the committee "hell." He urged Mr. Bush to consult with senators of both parties, particularly with respect to a Supreme Court nominee. And he stressed that his assessment of any nominee to the high court will hinge on that person's respect for judicial precedents. Instead of playing to the right, he suggested, Mr. Bush should seek someone who would be "universally accepted," and the Democrats should respond accordingly.
Whether Mr. Specter can push the judicial nominations process in a constructive direction remains to be seen. He is squeezed between angry and polarized members of his committee and a White House that is loath to compromise. But it is encouraging to have the Judiciary Committee chairman even attempting to act as a peacemaker, rather than stoking the flames. Mr. Specter stresses that it will take goodwill from all sides to begin reversing the damage; here's hoping people are listening.