Keeping the Robes Clean; the High Court Has Somehow Remained a Bulwark in a Nasty World of Inexorable Lobbying, Anti-Intellectualism and Self-Serving Politicking

Article excerpt

Byline: Anna Quindlen

The man before the bench looks overwhelmed, standing hip deep in a pile of paper. "Abortion," says one document; "capital punishment," another. Government aid to parochial schools, undeclared war, de facto segregation. The poor guy is drowning in a tide of hot-button issues, a sea of cites. This may well be how the next justice appointed to the Supreme Court will feel, but the man in this editorial cartoon is Harry Blackmun 35 years ago. How little the world has changed. The same tide, the same sea.

And one other thing has stayed the same: the high court. It has somehow remained a bulwark in a nasty world of inexorable lobbying, knee-jerk anti-intellectualism and self-serving politicking. America's basic insurance is tripartite government, spreading power around: the executive, the legislative, the judicial. The president, the Congress, the Supreme Court. Only the last has maintained a form and a function that merit respect. Its nine members do not press the flesh at picnics. They do not solicit campaign contributions. They accept accountability. They are the last bastion of dignity in our sullied system.

Partisans on the right and the left seem hellbent on changing that. From both sides come calls for potential justices with a platform and positions, immutable and certain--in other words, a candidate for the high court no different from a candidate for high office. They seem to want a politician-equivalent at a time when the standing of politicians is at a particularly low ebb.

The study of history, which has never been our national strong suit, shows that men and women come to the court and rise to the occasion. Frequently they grow and change, in part because that is what significant people do throughout their lives, in part because the notion of justice changes. Once bigotry was enshrined in American law. A woman had no property rights. A black man was only fractionally human. Luckily, the law is a living thing, big enough to admit error.

Justices of the Supreme Court must be able to do the same. Yet the current chatter seems to offer a seat only to those already set in stone. Take Hugo Black, who was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan. If he were a candidate for the court today, liberals would likely fight to keep him off--and so would lose a justice who was later known as a committed supporter of civil liberties.

After two other candidates crashed and burned, "old No. 3," as Blackmun liked to call himself, reached the court labeled "conservative to moderate" by the man who vetted him for the Nixon White House, a young assistant attorney general named William Rehnquist. …