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The Judge for Me

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, July 7, 2005

Over the July 4 weekend, I went to a party -- the usual gaggle of politically obsessed Beltway types -- where I knew I would be asked who I thought should succeed Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. Without hesitation -- and to more than a few dumbfounded looks -- I boldly gave my answer: Judge Judy.

Given a mere moment, I would offer my explanation. I have no idea if Judy Sheindlin is a Republican or a Democrat, and her legal ideology -- original intent, etc. -- is a mystery to me. I know only that she gets the job done and can, in the inimitable words of the "Ultimate Judge Judy" Web page, "see through BS pretty fast." That's the judge for me.

I am (mostly) serious. In reading the oodles of stuff on the Supreme Court opening, in talking to the usual people in the know, I am constantly asking myself the same question: What has this got to do with me? Groups on the right and on the left are reportedly prepared to spend as much as $100 million to promote or block certain nominees. Indeed, the handkerchief has already been dropped and the duel begun. The e-mails seem to arrive by the nanosecond. The alarmist letters stuff the mailbox. The interest groups act as if the vacancy on the Supreme Court belongs to them. I beg to differ. It is the United States Supreme Court and belongs to all of us.

This is emphatically not how interest groups on the right see it. They consider this seat on the court their own, recompense for their support of George W. Bush. What's more -- and unmentioned for the sheer bad taste of it all -- is that they feel the president owes them one in restitution for his father's boneheaded appointment of David Souter. It is Souter who haunts this nominating process. He was not only the appointee of a proclaimed conservative president, but he was also vetted by White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, the very same gent who has since turned judicial nightrider and will, in Freudian overcompensation, torch any senator who opposes a judicial reactionary. Souter was not asked his views on abortion. This will not happen again.

The upshot is that even the plenty conservative Alberto Gonzales, currently the attorney general and once the White House counsel, is being pummeled by religiously based right-wing groups. Because of some of his decisions when he was on the Texas Supreme Court and, more pertinent, his lack of fulsome antiabortion rhetoric, he has been deemed unacceptable by the true leaders of this very Christian nation. It is, really, an absurdity. Gonzales, after all, was breathtakingly cavalier about pending executions when he was Bush's counsel in Texas and in other ways has hewed to conservative positions both grand and petite. If he is not acceptable, then Strom Thurmond will have to be exhumed.

For even Bush it was too much. He reminded his friends on the right that Gonzales was his buddy. ("I'm the kind of person, when a friend gets attacked, I don't like it," he told USA Today, doing a pretty good John Wayne imitation.) At the same time, the Bush White House dispatched a swarm of the usual aides to say -- mostly on background, of course -- that their allies on the right were going too far. And a day later, Bush himself added that he would concentrate on the "character" of the various candidates and leave the legal minutiae to his "legal experts." Clearly, Karl Rove and others were sensing that the GOP was beginning to look like the Democratic Party -- obligated to one special-interest group after another and to hell with the general public. After all, most Americans still support abortion rights -- 63 percent would oppose overturning the Roe v. Wade decision, according to the latest Pew poll -- although support drops precipitously if the question is limited to late-term abortion.

This sense -- this keen appreciation -- that the Supreme Court vacancy is owned by right-wing special-interest groups will, in the end, damage the GOP as its left-wing variant (support for late-term abortions, affirmative action, etc.) has hurt the Democratic Party. The difference is that the Democrats were mostly engaged in expanding rights while the GOP's extremists are industriously determined to narrow them. I and maybe you would much prefer a judge whose ideology is rooted in pragmatism and who gets immense satisfaction from knowing that simple justice has been done. That's why people watch Judge Judy. Mr. President, she's on at 4.

cohenr@washpost.com

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