IT SHOULDN'T BE necessary to write in praise of the three Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who this week voted in committee to confirm John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice of the United States. Supporting overwhelmingly qualified members of the opposite party for the Supreme Court used to be the norm, not an act of courage. Yet, set against the general opposition from Democrats to the nomination, and truly intense pressure from interest groups, the votes cast by ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and Wisconsin's Herb Kohl and Russell Feingold took guts. Their votes ensure that Judge Roberts will not take the helm of the judiciary perceived as the representative of only one party, and they guarantee that at least some Democrats -- albeit sadly few -- will have the moral authority to demand Republican support for qualified liberal nominees in the future.
The larger Democratic opposition to Judge Roberts represents a disturbing departure from longtime Senate practice. Of the current members of the court, only Justice Clarence Thomas had substantial opposition. The other seven, including Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia, received among them only one no vote in committee; six of them, in other words, received unanimous committee endorsement. The seven received, again among all of them, only 21 negative votes on the floor. In refusing to support an indisputably qualified conservative, Democrats send a message that there is a strongly partisan component of the task of judging -- something those who believe in independent, apolitical courts must reject.
The three senators who voted yes are taking a beating from liberal groups for it. Ralph G. Neas of People for the American Way issued a vicious statement about Mr. Leahy, declaring him "complicit" in any votes Judge Roberts might cast that "retreat from our constitutional rights and liberties." He is dead wrong. The decisions Judge Roberts will write are his own responsibility, not Mr. Leahy's; life tenure for federal judges, in fact, exists precisely so that judges will be insulated from politicians and so that politicians are not responsible for judging.
The liberal groups have made clear that they will oppose any nominee from this administration, regardless of qualifications, temperament or testimony. Nan Aron, who heads the Alliance for Justice, all but announced as much in a Post story Friday, saying, "We expect the next nomination to ignite a firestorm of opposition." Never mind waiting to find out who the nominee is or what he or she happens to believe, though she told us Friday that the president could avoid the firestorm by nominating the right person. In opposing Judge Roberts, some Democrats are following these groups off a cliff. The Judiciary Committee Democrats who refused to jump deserve credit for showing backbone.