IN ANNOUNCING his opposition yesterday to the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice of the United States, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) made a remarkable statement: "The president is not entitled to very much deference in staffing the third branch of government, the judiciary." Leave aside the merits of the Roberts nomination, which we support; if Mr. Reid regards Judge Roberts as unworthy, he is duty-bound to vote against him. But these are dangerous words that Democrats will come to regret.
This country has only one president at a time. That president, right now President Bush, is tasked with naming judges. The Senate has the role of providing advice and consent on the president's choices, which is a significant constitutional task. But if the presidential election means anything in this arena, it must mean that the president's choice has a heavy presumption of confirmation. That is the way the system works. Why else would Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have received only a handful of no-votes among them? During the Clinton administration, we deplored the way that the Senate treated the president's judicial nominees during six years of Republican control over the Senate. Yet during those six years, the Senate confirmed 245 of President Bill Clinton's judges. If Republicans had been applying Mr. Reid's standard, they would have been within their rights to reject them all.
Do Democrats really want the American confirmation system to move in that direction? Republicans may still be in the majority the next time a Democratic president nominates a justice. Is it now okay for them to vote against a person who -- as Mr. Reid put it of Judge Roberts -- is "an excellent lawyer" and "a thoughtful, mainstream judge" who may make "a fine Supreme Court justice" simply because the nominee doesn't represent their ideal? When that day comes, and Democrats cry foul, remember what Mr. Reid said about how little deference he believes he owes Mr. Bush concerning Judge Roberts.