Friday, August 7, 2009

Whom Do our Representatives Represent?

The Senate vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor has left me thinking once again about what we expect of those who are supposed to represent us in the Congress. I was certainly not surprised at the bias of the vote along Party lines, but I was still struck by the video clip NBC Nightly News showed last night of Orrin Hatch. He spoke eloquently and positively about Sotomayor, only to conclude by expressing his personal sadness in voting against her. What was the cause of that sadness? Did his personal conscience believe that she was qualified; and, if so, why could he not vote his conscience. Was he under the pressure of his constituents? Was the pressure coming from the "machinery" of the Republican Party?

These questions continued to stick in my craw as I read the story that Charlie Savage filed last night for The New York Times. Savage presented a Republican point of view through a quotation from Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky:
Judge Sotomayor is certainly a fine person with an impressive story and a distinguished background. But a judge must be able to check his or her personal or political agenda at the courtroom door and do justice evenhandedly, as the judicial oath requires. This is the most fundamental test. It is a test that Judge Sotomayor does not pass.
These words have intimations of rationality, but do they have the substance? Having followed much of Judge Sotomayor's testimony, I found considerable difficulty identifying any evidence to warrant McConnell's conclusion; but, since neither his constituents nor the media seemed particularly concerned about holding him accountable for justifying his decision (the sort of accountability the Senators appeared to expect of Sotomayor herself), his conclusion remained a puzzle.

It became less of a puzzle, though, when I encountered this paragraph later in Savage's article:
In July, the National Rifle Association, which historically has stayed out of judicial nomination fights, came out against Justice Sotomayor and said it would include senators’ confirmation vote in its legislative scorecard on gun-rights issues for the 2010 election, a pointed threat to Democrats from conservative-leaning states.
If we wanted to seek motives behind the decisions made on the Senate floor, this struck me as a good place to look! The Democrats may have maintained party unity, but the Republicans saw this as a step towards recovering control of the Congress, as they had done in the second year of the Clinton Administration. The real narrative behind this nomination was, like any political narrative, about power; and I would be hard pressed to find any narrative about power in which conscience prevailed. My guess is that Hatch would have had just as much difficulty as I have had, in which case his sadness may have come from the wisdom of his experience reminding him that political reality includes the proposition that power always trumps conscience. If his conscience is finally getting to him, as it did to William Shakespeare's characterization of Henry IV, he may find that he will only be able to settle his soul through retirement from the field of power.

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