Statement of People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas
It is unfortunate that President Bush has chosen in this moment of national crisis, with war looming on the horizon, to be a divider and not a uniter. This decision is a tragic failure of leadership and demonstrates a disturbing arrogance of power.
The president’s call on the first day of the new Congress for extraordinarily irresponsible and unfair tax cuts was followed, under cover of darkness, by the renomination of federal judges with deeply troubling records on civil rights and other issues.
In a single day, the White House has once again made it clear that it has fully embraced a two-prong strategy by right-wing leaders to redefine and radically undermine the role of the federal government in protecting Americans’ civil rights and addressing urgent domestic issues.
One prong of this strategy is to enact and make permanent massive tax cuts targeted primarily toward the wealthiest Americans, which would eliminate trillions of dollars from federal revenue over the next two decades. That will in effect cripple the federal government so it will be unable to fund many vital governmental functions performed since the New Deal. This strategy was summed up by Bush adviser Grover Norquist during the lobbying campaign for President Bush’s first huge tax cut: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
The second prong is to turn back the clock on our nation’s constitutional framework by creating a federal judiciary dominated by right-wing judges who embrace a return to the states’ rights judicial philosophy.
It is, in fact, remarkable for the president to renominate judges like Charles Pickering and Priscilla Owen – who were rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee after open hearings about their troubling records on civil rights and other issues – so quickly after Trent Lott was forced to step down from his leadership post. Renominating these judges demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of the concerns that fed the public outcry leading to Lott’s downfall. It also shows disrespect for the Senate, particularly the senators on the Judiciary Committee who carefully examined the records of Owen and Pickering. It would be extremely rare if not unprecedented for the full Senate to overrule the decision of the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject a nominee after thorough hearings.
Senate action on judicial nominations over the next 12 to 24 months, especially for potential Supreme Court vacancies, will have far-reaching consequences. Already a narrow 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings restricting the ability of the federal government to protect citizens whose rights are abused by states and others, and limiting the power of the Congress to address pressing national issues. But the Court’s most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, are eager to move more aggressively in overturning decades of Supreme Court precedent.
That is why battles over judicial nominations are not just partisan jockeying – they are debates about the meaning of the Constitution and the law of the land for us, our children, and our grandchildren. And the issues at stake are not abstract questions that only concern law professors – they are crucial to our daily lives.
Here are some of the questions Americans should be asking about the very real potential that the federal judiciary could become dominated by judges who embrace the philosophy of Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia: Will the courts strip women of their constitutional right to privacy and reproductive choice? Will they undermine the authority of Congress to protect citizens whose civil rights are violated by the government or others? Will they prevent government agencies from acting to safeguard the air we breathe and water we drink?
Take away the money. And then take away legal rights that have been part of our constitutional framework for 65 years. It is a simple but breathtakingly radical strategy, and it is now on full display in the Bush White House. Rather than reaching across the partisan aisle to work cooperatively toward consensus on pressing national issues, the president continues to act unilaterally in pursuit of this agenda, with disregard for the importance of bipartisan consultation and cooperation.
There is an urgent need for a national conversation about what all this would mean for our country. It is up to Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress to forge a mainstream coalition that will act to ensure that lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary go only to nominees who have demonstrated a commitment to protecting our constitutional and civil rights, and that the federal government will continue to have the ability and resources to deal with issues like strengthening public schools, protecting our air and water, ensuring worker and consumer safety, and enforcing civil rights protections. This is about our future.