At first, my knowledge consisted essentially of one word: "Scalito."
Then I heard on television that Samuel Alito had once ruled that a woman had to notify her husband before getting an abortion.
Then I read that his 90-year-old mom says he's against abortion.
Now I have the benefit of long newspaper and online pieces about Alito's 15-year record as a federal appellate judge, which is roughly 15 years more experience than Harriet Miers.
But still, when I watch the tube or listen to what the left-wing and right-wing activists say, I hear declarations that Alito is either a lock to overturn Roe v. Wade or that he might well refuse to upset the 32-year-old precedent.
All of which makes me wonder: Does the media echo chamber inevitably dull our senses and reduce everyone in public life to a caricature? Is it possible to have a nuanced debate over a judge's rulings when all the caveats and extenuating circumstances seem to get drowned out?
Judicial opinions are often balancing acts, constrained by the circumstances of the particular case and the higher-court precedents. But if you're a TV booker, you don't want to hear about that. You want to know whether the guest will say that Alito is or is not a threat to abortion.
In theory, at least, a judge could be personally opposed to abortion and yet act as a neutral umpire in calling the balls and strikes of a legal case. But everyone wants a surefire guarantee.
Here are several stories I've been poring over, beginning with Chuck Lane | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/01/AR2005110101555.html in The Washington Post:
"At least on the surface, Alito's record as an appeals court judge contains something for everyone. In 1991, he voted to uphold a Pennsylvania law that would have required married women to notify their husbands before getting an abortion. In 1995, however, he cast a deciding vote on a three-judge panel to strike down what abortion rights advocates saw as Pennsylvania's onerous regulations on federally funded abortions for victims of incest or rape. And in 2000, he concurred in a ruling that struck down a New Jersey ban on the late-term procedure called partial-birth abortion by opponents.
"Yet for supporters and skeptics, Alito's record is not ambiguous, and it points toward the same conclusion: He would probably vote to strike down Roe . And they say this for a similar reason: It's not the results Alito reached in past cases that matters, it's his legal reasoning."
Adam Liptak | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/02/politics/02abortion.html?pagewanted=all looks at other cases in the New York Times: "Last year, he ruled that the husbands of women forced to undergo abortions in China had themselves suffered persecution serious enough to warrant granting the men asylum in the United States. But he rejected similar claims from boyfriends or fiances of women who had been forced to have abortions . . .
"In 1997, he joined a decision applying the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion, to uphold a New Jersey law that let parents sue on behalf of deceased children but not stillborn fetuses.
"In 2000, he joined a decision applying Stenberg v. Carhart - another 2000 decision that struck down a Nebraska law that banned a procedure its critics call partial-birth abortion - to a similar New Jersey law."
Now for a couple of law profs. First, Richard Schragger | http://www.slate.com/id/2129230/nav/tap1/ in Slate:
"Judge Alito might be ambivalent about many things, but he is not ambivalent about abortion. Seeking to cloud this issue by pointing out that Alito authored opinions on both sides of the issue is nonsense. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"In 1991, Alito was very clear. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey -- the very case the Supreme Court later used to affirm Roe v. Wade -- Alito joined the majority in holding that it is not an undue burden on a woman's right to choose to require women to wait 24 hours for an abortion, to require minors to obtain parental consent, or to require that abortion providers give women information about alternatives to abortion and comply with certain disclosure and public-reporting requirements.
"But Alito went even further than the majority in that case. Though he joined the other two judges in upholding most of Pennsylvania's law, he disagreed with them that the spousal notification portion of the statute was unconstitutional. Alito would have upheld the entire statute, including the spousal notification provision, on the grounds that it did not constitute an undue burden. It was this part of the statute the Supreme Court struck down in Casey."
Now, Richard Adler | http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110007483 in OpinionJournal:
"Judge Alito's most controversial opinion may be his partial dissent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which he voted to uphold the constitutionality of a spousal notification requirement for abortions. The three-judge panel in Casey unanimously upheld several abortion restrictions adopted by the Pennsylvania Legislature, including a parental-notification requirement and a 24-hour waiting period before a woman could obtain an abortion. While both policies may restrict the availability of abortion, neither constituted an 'undue burden' on a woman's right to abort her fetus, as the Supreme Court subsequently held.
"Where Judge Alito differed with his colleagues was on whether it was an 'undue burden' to require married women to notify their husbands prior to obtaining an abortion. This requirement was subject to several exceptions and was easily circumvented.
"After a careful reading of the available Supreme Court precedent, Judge Alito concluded that this spousal notification was a constitutionally permissible limitation on a woman's right to an abortion. His opinion gives no hint as to whether he would personally support spousal notification, or other regulations. This is not a judge's role, he explained: 'Whether the legislature's approach represents sound public policy is not a question for us to decide. Our task here is simply to decide whether [the law] meets constitutional standards.' This is the hallmark of judicial restraint."
A footnote: This is what Sandra Day O'Connor said at her 1981 confirmation hearing, according to the NYT: " 'For myself,' she replied, 'abortion is offensive to me, it is repugnant to me, it is something in which I would not engage.' . . . She said she felt 'an obligation to recognize that others have different views.' ''
Power Line's John Hinderaker | http://powerlineblog.com/ worries about what the left will do to Alito:
"Far-left groups like People for the American Way, NARAL, etc. have raised tens of millions of dollars to oppose President Bush's judicial nominations. While I don't think it is clear that Senate Democrats have to fight Alito's nomination to the death, there is no doubt that the left-wing pressure groups do. They decided, for the most part, to take a pass on John Roberts' nomination, and are still sitting on the huge war chest their partisans contributed to fight Republican judges. They have to spend it now, or go out of business.
"We have no experience by which to judge the impact of $20 or $30 million in television advertising on the Supreme Court confirmation process. The left-wing groups will create ads that attack various opinions written by Judge Alito, in terms that will no doubt be childishly oversimplified, if not downright false and misleading. But that doesn't mean that such an advertising campaign can't be effective. Maybe it will succeed in raising doubts about Alito in the minds of many Americans. If so, the Senate Democrats likely will be emboldened to try their hand at a filibuster, even if it seems doomed to failure.
"On the other hand, it may be that a large majority of Americans are repelled by an unprecedented ad campaign against a judge of Alito's stature."
Maybe The Note was right and the outcome of this battle is preordained:
"Centrist senators who may decide the fate of Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. are showing a reluctance to permit a filibuster of the conservative nominee, enhancing Alito's chances of being confirmed to the high court despite heated opposition from liberal and abortion rights groups," says the Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2005/11/03/centrists_seen_shying_from_filibuster/.
In the wake of the Senate Democrats' "stunt"--hey, what's wrong with a good stunt in politics? Isn't a presidential landing on an aircraft carrier a stunt?--Ron Brownstein | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-110205iraqassess_lat,0,6875915.story?coll=la-home-headlines sees a shifting landscape:
"For months, the politics of the Iraq war have been frozen in place, with stalwart Republicans defending President Bush's policy and most Democrats shunning a direct challenge. Now, the ice has begun to crack.
"In the face of solidifying public opposition to the war, a mounting U.S. body count and a renewed focus on the faulty intelligence used to justify the war, Democratic lawmakers and candidates have sharpened their critique of the administration's policy and, in some cases, urged a withdrawal of U.S. troops . . .
"Meanwhile, some Republicans who were strong backers of Bush's policy increasingly are distancing themselves from his optimism that the U.S. mission will be successful -- even after the recent approval of a new Iraqi constitution."
The Washington Times | http://washingtontimes.com/national/20051103-121638-6892r.htm has Democrats escalating "their fiery attacks":
"Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, whose ill-fated 2004 presidential campaign was fueled by opposition to the war, called on the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney to 'answer questions about their roles in manipulating intelligence information to build support for the war, smearing opponents of the war and covering up that smear campaign.' "House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Mr. Reid also sent Mr. Bush a letter asking him to apologize for the actions by Mr. Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby and any other officials who may have been involved in the CIA leak investigation."
In American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias | http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=10559 dismisses those who dismiss the Scooter indictment:
"Immediately the right sprung into action. 'Obstruction for What?' was the headline of a special Saturday Web editorial from The Wall Street Journal's impeccably right-wing opinion section. 'Libby is charged with lying about a crime that wasn't committed.'
"This would be silly were it not so dangerous.
"From the beginning, the administration's critics couldn't know for sure which laws, if any, were violated in the course of generating Novak's column. That's because the statutes, as written, require prosecutors to prove not only that certain actions took place (to wit: the exposure of Plame's status as a CIA employee to persons not authorized to receive that information) but also things about the perpetrators' knowledge and state of mind at the time. These are difficult things to prove. They're especially difficult to prove if the relevant people feel free to mislead investigators.
"Libby seems to have felt just this . . . Sure, maybe Libby's telling the truth here. Maybe Russert, Cooper, Miller, Grossman, Cheney, and two unknown CIA officers are engaged in a massive conspiracy to nail Libby to the wall for a crime he didn't commit. And if you believe that, I've got some crudely forged documents that I'd like to sell you alleging that Saddam Hussein bought uranium from Niger."
Huffington Post's Marty Kaplan | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marty-kaplan/balls_b_9977.html applauds the Reid revolt:
"Finally the Democrats on the Hill have shown some leadership. Instead of being cowed by Bush's attempt to change the subject to abortion and bird flu, Harry Reid and his colleagues in the political minority have at last figured out that the Republicans are in a minority in every other way. By wide margins, the country believes we're on the wrong track, that the BushCo sleaze factor is intolerable, and that the war in Iraq is a disaster that we were deceived into launching . . .
"The Democrats have made a decision: when your opponents lie, stonewall, and turn a blind eye to senseless loss of life, being verbally attacked by under-investigation Bill Frist and under-polling Rick Santorum is a risk worth taking. The Republicans call closing down the Senate under Rule 21 a 'stunt.' What -- compared to Dr. Frist's long-distance diagnosis of Terry Schiavo?"
Jonah Goldberg | http://nationalreview.com/goldberg/goldberg200511020852.asp sees the Scooter case as more of a bust:
"It sure looks to me like this investigation is going nowhere. And judging from Senate Democrats' desperate attempt to make every day Fitzmas, they think so, too. Let's go over the indictments as quickly as we can. First, Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff and an aide to the president, allegedly lied to investigators and the grand jury about phone conversations he had in response to the Fitzgerald investigation. Libby claims he's completely innocent.
"Second . . . oh wait, there is no second. That's it. The five indictments are all variations of the same charge. Fitzgerald claims Libby lied on multiple occasions, requiring multiple indictments. Libby claims he told the truth on multiple occasions. If Libby's lying about that, he should go to jail.
"But whatever the truth may be in Libby's case, it offers absolutely nothing by way of corroboration that Bush 'lied us into war.' It reveals nothing about who the original leaker of Valerie Plame's identity was. The indictments provide no foundation for the preening martyrdom Joseph Wilson is wrapping himself in."
LAT columnist, Robert Scheer | http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/opinion/la-oe-scheer1nov01,1,917872.column?coll=la-news-comment essentially blames Bush's reelection on . . . Judy Miller:
"The most intriguing revelation of Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's news conference last week was his assertion that he would have presented his indictment of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby a year ago if not for the intransigence of reporters who refused to testify before the grand jury. He said that without that delay, 'we would have been here in October 2004 instead of October 2005.' "Had that been the case, John Kerry probably would be president of the United States today."
Aaron Brown is out | http://nytimes.com/2005/11/02/business/media/02cnd-cnn.html?hp&ex=1130994000&en=975aa556dd3c9d5c&ei=5094&partner=homepage at CNN, and Anderson Cooper is in.
ABC's Jake Tapper | http://blogs.abcnews.com/downanddirty/2005/11/half_a_quote_is.html says he was misrepresented by a liberal media watchdog:
"The dishonesty inherent in their truncating my quote may help satisfy their partisan martyrdom and help fill their professional coffers, but it does a disservice to the American people." And here's the response | http://mediamatters.org/items/200511020006.
At U.S. News, Paul Bedard | http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/051107/7whitehouse.htm has a great item about W. as media critic:
"President Bush is angry, again, at the news media. White House insiders say the president is fuming about negative news coverage on a variety of issues, including the special prosecutor investigation, the Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court, the war in Iraq, and rising conservative criticism of the administration. As an example, one Bush adviser said, 'We've hit the 2,000 mark for casualties in Iraq. Why is that symbolically important? Because the media says it's symbolically important. And what about all the focus on the special prosecutor? Who controls that? The media.' "
Um, a special prosecutor brings an indictment against the vice president's top aide and that's not a big story? Two thousand Americans die in Iraq and that's not a story? And the Miers nomination, of course, was done in by the conservative punditocracy. This doesn't strike me as a serious critique that an administration official would put his name to. Oh right, he didn't.