Byline: Charles Hurt, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy said yesterday that he plans to rein in President Bush's program of wiretapping without warrants, rewrite the policy for handling terrorism detainees and more closely scrutinize nominees to the federal courts.
"As a Democratic majority prepares to take the lead on the Judiciary Committee, we do not have the luxury of starting with a completely clean slate," the Vermont Democrat told an audience at Georgetown University Law Center. "We begin knowing that we have a duty to repair real damage done to our system of government over the last few years."
Mr. Leahy accused Mr. Bush of "corrosive unilateralism," eroding the privacy rights of Americans, erasing constitutional checks and balances, and "packing" the federal judiciary.
The Republican House and Senate, he said, accepted White House policy changes without question.
"I came to the Senate during the ebb tide of Vietnam and Watergate. In my 32 years since then in the Senate, I have never seen a Congress so willfully derelict in its duties," Mr. Leahy said. "This has been an unfortunate chapter in Congress' history, a time when our Constitution was under assault, when our legal and human rights were weakened, when our privacy and other freedoms were eroded."
Still, he said, he hopes to proceed in a bipartisan manner.
"Senator Leahy has not yet assumed the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, but his statements today and in recent weeks are already raising disturbing questions about his ability and willingness to give fair consideration to the president's judicial nominees," said Curt Levey, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice, who attended the speech.
Though short on specifics, Mr. Leahy criticized the program of wiretapping without warrants and said he hopes to update the laws governing foreign intelligence warrants. "With meaningful oversight and cooperation from this administration, we can achieve the right balance," he said.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and Judiciary Committee member, defended the president's program, aimed at capturing communications of terrorist plotters.