Goodbye, Michael Brown. Hello, John Roberts

When the oath is a "photo op" and the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

By T.g.

Published September 12, 2005 7:50PM (EDT)

How did FEMA Director Michael Brown make it through the U.S. Senate? He didn't, really. The Senate confirmed Brown as the second in command at FEMA in 2002. But Brown was elevated to the director's position at FEMA as the agency was subsumed within the newly created Department of Homeland Security, and his promotion simply "slipped right through" without Senate confirmation, Sen. Joe Lieberman tells Roll Call.

That won't happen with John Roberts, of course, but the net effect will be the same: At the end of the confirmation hearings that began today -- after two dozen senators deliver their opening remarks, after Roberts delivers his statement, after the nominee answers or doesn't answer questions about Roe v. Wade and gay rights and the right to privacy and the role of the federal judiciary -- George W. Bush will have the man he wants in the job in which he wants to have him.

John Roberts is no Michael Brown, of course. Say what you will about Roberts' ideological views, he's plainly qualified, in the résumé and credentials sense, for a job on the Supreme Court in a way that Brown was never qualified to serve as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Roberts graduated from Harvard Law School and has worked at the highest levels of the nation's legal profession. Brown graduated from the virtually unknown Oklahoma City University School of Law and had an undistinguished career in the law before he became a commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association -- a job from which he was subsequently forced to resign.

But the Senate's obligation to provide advice and consent on Supreme Court nominees means more than checking a candidate's résumé and character references. Confirmation hearings should be more than a formality, and the oath administered to the nominee before testifying should be more than a "photo op," which is how Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter described it this afternoon. Nominees should be required to offer more than platitudes -- "judges are like umpires," Roberts said today in his extraordinarily brief opening statement -- on their way to a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.

But even before Katrina hit New Orleans and Chief Justice William Rehnquist died, Roberts' confirmation was a foregone conclusion. The Republicans in the Senate are united behind him, and the Democrats don't have the votes to defeat his nomination or even maintain a filibuster of it. So for all the talk today about the rights Roberts will or won't protect and the questions Roberts will or won't answer, the confirmation process he faces will ultimately be about as meaningful as the one Brown managed to avoid.

Elections have consequences, the Republicans like to say. The people of New Orleans have learned that over the last couple of weeks. The Democrats are getting a reminder today.

By T.g.


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