Column: In Rehnquist’s absence

By Elie Dvorin

Chief Justice William Rehnquist epitomized the ideal jurist on our nation’s highest court. He had a strong understanding of the law and a keen legal intellect. He had a knack for taking the most complex of legal arguments and reducing them to simple principles in his written opinions, in a way both the scholar and the layman could understand. Under his leadership, he united a philosophically divided Supreme Court.

John Roberts, the nominee originally slated to fill the vacancy left by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, will now be pegged to fill Rehnquist’s position as Chief Justice. Unfortunately, in the wake of Rehnquist’s death, his memory is already being trampled on. Not even 24 hours after his passing, the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are already looking to delay Roberts’ hearings and those of the new appointee for weeks, which would inevitably push back the work of the Court.

This is typical of the Congressional Democrat attitude in recent years. When life throws a curve and our nation requires leaders to step up to the plate, not only do they not step up – they back away. Rehnquist gave more than three decades of his life to the Supreme Court and even worked through chemotherapy and the thyroid cancer that took his life. When life threw him a curve, he stepped up to the challenge and then went beyond that. As soon as he is buried, the hearings should begin out of respect for the Supreme Court and out of respect for Rehnquist.

What makes the whole situation even worse, is that Hurricane Katrina is being cited as the main reason for the attempted delay in the hearings. Forgive me for thinking it was below our elected officials to politicize a natural disaster and use it for personal gain. If the tragedy on the Gulf Coast has taught us one thing, it’s that excuses don’t fix anything. Just like having an ill-prepared rescue and relief system in New Orleans doesn’t make any sense, neither does having an ill-prepared Supreme Court, with either a delayed start or full of vacancies.

The fact of the matter is that the hurricane has nothing to do with the senators not being able to hold hearings for Roberts. The Democrats have come to the realization that Roberts will likely end up confirmed as the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but they’re still not ready to let Bush make that second selection. Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer has already proposed that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor return to the Court for one more year, which would keep the pick out of Bush’s hands for at least the next Court term.

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The hope for the Democrats is that they will win back the Senate in the midterm elections or that the political environment next year will somehow compromise Bush’s ability to appoint a judicial conservative. The Supreme Court has some cases of major significance on the docket for this term, including a parental consent for abortion case and a euthanasia case. The Democrats believe that O’Connor would be much more likely to vote on their side of those issues than whoever else Bush would pick to fill the vacancy. If taking advantage of the hurricane is what they need to do, then they’ll do it.

Rehnquist may be gone, but it is in the best interest of the nation that Bush appoints somebody in Rehnquist’s mold to fill the final Court vacancy. Rehnquist was a proponent of judicial restraint, advocated states rights and fought against an overreaching federal government. Most importantly, Rehnquist understood that the Supreme Court is the judicial branch of the government and not the legislative branch – something that the majority of the current justices on the Court still don’t understand.

Bush’s legacy will likely be determined by his influence on the Supreme Court. If he doesn’t cave in to the Democrats, Bush can put his stamp on the Court for years to come. A continuation of Rehnquist’s conservative judicial philosophy on the Court is just the stamp we need right now.