One decision doesn’t make a career, but an alarm should have sounded when Chief Justice Roberts joined Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in overriding the will of Oregon voters and attempting to overrule Oregon’s Death With Dignity law. Although the Court’s current majority sustained the law, this was the first major split decision of the Roberts court. And by contradicting all his fine-sounding phrases about Federalist principles (much as the five justices did in Bush v. Gore) Roberts made clear that his
political beliefs will guide his interpretations. If there are doubts about his agenda, and where his loyalties lie, I’d suggest that this should bury them.
Many of us believed this would happen when we urged a no vote on Roberts. But he was well-spoken and pedigreed, praised moderation at every turn, and evaded the hard questions. The Democrats never mounted a serious challenge. Now the Senate faces Alito, who has left a far more unambiguous trail supporting centralization of executive power, incursions of government into private life, and the right of corporations to avoid oversight and regulation. After hearings that illuminated nothing except his ability to play dodge ball, he’s likely to receive considerably more negative votes. But for the moment, the Democrats are still hesitant to filibuster.
The Oregon decision should remind them of the stakes. It should remind any Republicans who’d remotely lay claim to the attribute of “moderate.” It should give an incentive to challenge the nomination with every tool available, including the filibuster-particularly in a time when Bush has squandered his political standing through his own evasions, incompetencies, and lies. Just as valuable New Deal programs like the National Recovery Administration and Agricultural Adjustment Act were struck down by a court that was the legacy of Presidents Hoover, Taft, and Harding (some of whose justices also opposed progressive taxation, the minimum wage and any attempts at corporate regulation), the confirmation of Alito and Roberts could cast a shadow over American politics for the next thirty years.
As the Oregon opinion reminds us, the threat of Alito’s nomination isn’t abstract. It’s a clear and present danger that can only be stopped by our Senators finding the courage to challenge an administration that respects only power. That means using the filibuster to talk about the assaults by this administration and their judicial surrogates on our democracy and on our ability to address our most urgent common problems. If not now, then when?