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The Sound and the Fury

How John Roberts drove the Senate Democrats nuts.

12:00 AM, Sep 21, 2005 • By EDWARD MORRISSEY
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SHAKESPEARE HAD IT RIGHT. Thanks to C-SPAN and the passions stoked from the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, the American voters had a chance to see a range of idiocy from the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, all of it coming from the sound and fury of Democrats trying desperately to stay relevant. One by one, they strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage--how we wish it had only been an hour--and wound up signifying less than nothing.

The minority party came into the hearing with a host of problems: President Bush had nominated a legal genius whose scholarship and skill would be obvious in any public hearing. Because of his short tenure on the appellate bench--the result of a Democratic filibuster--his track record left his judicial philosophy unclear, even to the president's supporters. The two months it took to start the hearings had produced wild and reckless charges from liberal interest groups and media outlets that backfired, note, for example, the smear campaign from NARAL which falsely claimed that Roberts supported abortion-clinic violence. That ad generated such disgust and easy rebuttal that even Democrats called for a retraction.

The death of William Rehnquist dealt Democrats a further strategic blow when Bush switched Roberts from replacing Sandra Day O'Connor to replacing his mentor, the chief justice, suggesting that the Court might rebalance itself. The media retracted its claws, especially the Washington Post, which went from raising strange charges of racism and misogyny against Roberts to eventually endorsing him. The Democrats on the Judiciary Committee limped into the hearings bereft of momentum and lacking any cohesive argument against the nominee.

Did that stop them from attacking him? Not at all.

FROM THE FIRST DAY, the strategy of the opposition was clear: get Roberts to refuse to answer questions about specific cases and paint him as unresponsive. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Roberts had prepared several candidates for hearings such as these. He refused to say how he would rule when presented with specific cases and hypotheticals based on issues that will probably come before the Court--but each time he explained in detail why he could not answer, and then instead talked about the process he would use to approach cases such as those outlined by the senators. He didn't sound unresponsive; rather, Roberts came across like a law professor giving a lecture in Jurisprudence 101 to a group of inattentive freshmen.

In return, the Democrats acted like . . . inattentive freshmen.

Ted Kennedy sounded oddly distant. In a mumbling monotone he kept repeating irrelevancies about Hurricane Katrina and clichés about giving "a hand up, not a handout." Mostly staring down at his desk, he read questions aloud and appeared not to notice when Roberts answered. He never engaged Roberts's responses. Eventually Kennedy simply stopped giving Roberts any time to answer and the chairman had to admonish him to be quiet so that the nominee could speak.

Chuck Schumer only fared better in that he appeared to understand the proceedings. After Democrats repeatedly made the point in the weeks leading up to the hearing that it would be John Roberts's "job interview," they proved that none of them had a clue how to conduct one. Where most potential employers want to hear job candidates talk, Schumer openly complained about the amount of time Roberts took to answer his questions.

If Schumer bungled the interview and Kennedy appeared lost, Joe Biden was petulant. Clearly outclassed in legal talent and debating skill, Biden not only talked over Roberts repeatedly--prompting a heated scolding from Chairman Specter--but made faces and tossed out insulting quips. After one admonishment from Specter on the first day, Biden responded by complaining that Roberts kept "filibustering" him, a rather ironic complaint. Afterwards, he instructed Roberts to "continue not answering my questions," laughing inappropriately at the supposed savagery of his own wit.

By the third day, Biden had lost all semblance of coherence. He tried getting Roberts to answer a question about a hypothetical end-of-life scenario. After Roberts demurred, Biden told him to forget that he was a judge and just answer the question:

BIDEN: Do you think the state--well, just talk to me as a father. Don't talk to me--just tell me, just philosophically, what do you think? Do you think that is--not what the Constitution says, what do you feel?