Wildly Spinning Alternative Worlds
Friday, January 6, 2006
Parallel universes are real, and don't let anyone tell you different.
Political debate, in its own way, has always offered us evidence of this, but it takes simultaneous and opposing news conferences on the same floor in the same building just doors away from each other to really drive home this alternative-reality thing.
And when the subject is the direction of this nation's highest court, on the eve of next week's Supreme Court confirmation hearings for the controversial nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., well, even Rod Serling might run into a little trouble trying to keep up.
In one room at the National Press Club yesterday was Concerned Women for America, accompanied by a fairly long list of female fellow travelers who had come to speak in favor of the judge. Just down the hall and around the corner was the National Alliance for Justice, with several law professors who, armed with a letter signed by nearly 500 of their colleagues, had come not to praise Alito but to bury him.
In one universe, the judge with a 15-year record on the bench is a saint, a black-robed legal eagle, "a man of integrity, intelligence and judicial experience" -- and restraint -- who will interpret rather than reinvent the Constitution. In the other world, he is a judicial activist from outside the legal mainstream trying to disguise himself as a moderate. He is a man who would endorse "strip-searching a 10-year-old" and a judge willing to give the executive branch unchecked powers over Americans and their civil liberties.
In one universe, that 1985 memo in which Alito expressed his opposition to Roe v. Wade is a 20-year-old document that tells us little about the way he would handle abortion cases.
In the other, it is a document that speaks volumes about his judicial intentions.
In one, the American Bar Association's highest rating for Alito is a gold standard. In another, although it can't be discounted, it is more a stamp of approval on his qualifications rather than any real commentary on his jurisprudence.
Don't be fooled into believing that these universes are just the manufactured worlds of political opposites. What they reflect is a real division over just how we Americans understand the Constitution. As more than one constitutional scholar has noted, we have yet to agree on just what the Constitution means. Is it a document meant to be interpreted as the Founders originally intended? Or is it alive, a dynamic operating system for an ever-morphing society?
The days leading up to Alito's hearing have been filled with the kind of political spitfire and spin that was absent from John Roberts's hearing last summer, when his confirmation was successfully promoted as a fait accompli . Washington in recent days has been in full form, with the left and the right pushing to frame the debate.
That push has arrived at a time when the Bush administration is battling its way through low approval ratings, complaints about its spying program, corruption scandals and that dogged war.
Alito's hearing offers a new arena in which to fight it all out.