The Supreme Court and Washington’s Hot Summer

These are hot sticky days in Washington and the summer sun isn’t the only reason the city is simmering. Domestic partisan issues have taken center stage and will most probably be all consuming for the next several months.

While Iraqis are running up against the mid-August deadline set for their draft constitution and while Israel prepares for its departure from Gaza, Washington is turning inward. Instead of foreign affairs, the political talk in the capital is focused on Karl Rove and the Supreme Court.

In the first instance, the hot topic of debate is over what the President should do in response to reports that Rove, his long time aide, violated both law and national security procedures by revealing the identity of a covert CIA operative in an act of political retaliation against her husband, Administration critic, Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

At the same time, the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a conservative though sometimes centrist judge, has consumed media and political discussion in the past few weeks. O’Connor’s departure has given President Bush the opportunity to nominate a new justice-who could determine the future direction of the US’s highest judicial body for over a decade. What is termed "the advice and consent" of the Senate, meaning that once the President names his choice, the Senate will convene a hearing to question the nominee and then they will vote to either accept or reject the President’s choice.

Bitter lines are already being drawn as both Republicans and Democrats are preparing for what will, no doubt, be a highly charged and potentially deeply divisive debate over the President’s selection. Both sides are aware that if the President is able to win confirmation for a solidly conservative judge, decisions of the court will be impacted for several years to come. Which is why the stakes are so high and the partisan debate is so intense.

With matters of civil liberties and racial and social justice at stake, it is to some extent distressing that a central focus in the debate will be on the question of abortion. Conservatives want Bush to name a judge who will overturn the earlier Supreme Court ruling that allowed the practice as a matter to be decided between a woman and her doctor. Some liberals, on the other hand, also see the abortion issue as a litmus test, but they want to preserve the earlier court’s ruling.

Partisan bloggers and well-funded interest groups are already gearing up their campaigns to press their views on Republican and Democratic lawmakers. The President got an early taste of what might be in store if he picked a judge not favored by his conservative supporters. Shortly after Justice O’Connor resigned, there was speculation that Bush might name his long-time friend and associate, former White House legal counsel and current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to the high court. Because Gonzales, while sitting as a judge in Texas, had once voted in favor of abortion rights, conservatives were outraged and made their views known to the White House. Ironically, despite the fact that Gonzales, while a Bush aide in Texas, had a less than sterling record in applying the death penalty and while as White House counsel was viewed as responsible for the memoranda that allowed the abuse of foreign prisoners held in US custody, some leading Democrats pronounced him an acceptable choice-again, solely because of his presumed stance on abortion.

Because of the powerful demands lawmakers from both parties will encounter from pressure groups representing key constituencies, they will listen and react accordingly. So while it might be in the best interest of the country for the White House to seek a consensus nominee, it appears unlikely that the President or Republican Senators facing reelection will risk alienating a key constituency. Similarly, while some Democrats have been making a valiant effort to moderate their party’s stance on abortion, those efforts will no doubt be a casualty of this confirmation process.

There will be other casualties as well. With media and political attention being consumed by this divisive partisan process for the next several months, some other pressing legislative matters may simply be shelved and efforts to reach compromise on issues like Social Security reform will become more difficult.

What may also suffer is the public’s confidence in Congress. If the partisan debate becomes too harsh and too shrill, the public’s disillusionment with Washington politics will only grow. Add to this mix the heat being generated by the controversy surrounding Karl Rove and it is certain that Washington will continue to boil into the fall.