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Preserve the republic

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Confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee for Judge John W. Roberts Jr., President Bush’s nominee to replace the late Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, got underway Monday. And the process will be repeated again soon to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

We urge civility and reasonableness by both the Senate Democrats and the Republican president.

While positions on social issues such as abortion vary dramatically from one person to another on the staff of YES! Weekly, we advocate political stability and hope the Supreme Court will avoid veering wildly in one direction or the other. We take umbrage at such notions as ‘blue media’ and ‘red media,’ as some partisans conceptualize the polarization of opinion and news consumption habits, and look with alarm at the way the country seems to be pulling apart on issues such as the war in Iraq, the proper relationship between church and state and gay marriage.

America is a big table with a glorious diversity of tastes, and we hope that a new Supreme Court will take care not to drive away half of the diners. Civil war is not our idea of a good fellowship dinner.

So on the face of it we applaud Bush’s nomination of Roberts to lead the Supreme Court. The effect will be substituting one conservative for another. That puts the replacement of O’Connor ‘— whom Roberts was originally nominated to replace and who has reportedly agreed to stay on the court until a successor is ready ‘— on the backburner. That, in turn, leaves the door open for Bush to nominate a more moderate jurist, a conciliatory move that would preserve stability and soothe anger over his poor handling of the Iraq war and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

On the other hand, it’s been reported that the Bush team met with Roberts before O’Connor announced her resignation, which leads to speculation that Roberts was the president’s pick for the job of chief justice all along, so one wonders whether he’s going to try to revolutionize the court on his next go-round.

We tend to think Roberts has the potential to make a good chief justice; yet even after thorough confirmation hearings it’s almost impossible to predict how the justices will evolve as they become more independent and less beholden to political interests during their years on the court. Although Roberts has spent much of his career as a partisan fighter ‘— his post-election legal services to Bush in Florida in late 2000, for example ‘— and representing corporate clients in private practice, he has also on occasion expressed respect for judicial precedence and stability. (Roberts’ argument as an advocate for the first Bush administration that Roe v. Wade was ‘“wrongly decided and should be overturned’” and his later opinion during his appeals court confirmation that Roe is ‘“settled law’” make his judicial stance on the issue of abortion a matter of speculation.)

We hope the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will take seriously their duties of advice and consent, but hold back from making this the kind of knock-down-drag-out fight that leads to a total meltdown.

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