The Political Interest Shame on Them All

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And yet the Senate was on the verge of confirming his nomination to a powerful and prestigious position that, given his age, 43, he might occupy for three or four decades. "The truth is ugly," concedes a Republican Senator who was poised to vote for Thomas. "We read the polls with the best of them, and those of us with sizable numbers of black constituents, which is almost all of us, were simply afraid to vote against a black nominee, the more so when the White House insisted that party loyalty demanded that we go with the guy. The problem now is that with little in the record that can support a claim to Thomas' legal distinction, there is nothing much for those of us who would otherwise support him to latch on to as a way of offsetting Anita Hill's very credible presentation."

As unimpressive as Thomas' testimony was, as cynical as Bush was in nominating him in the first place, as antidemocratic as the N.A.A.C.P. was in attempting to muzzle dissent, nothing matches the Senate's craven performance. One can side with Hill over Thomas and still understand why Thomas described last week's hearings as a "high-tech lynching." No matter the breaches of confidentiality, there had to be a way to consider Hill's allegations in closed session. But that is a complaint about process.

What will forever disgrace the Senate is the way in which it postponed its vote on Thomas' confirmation in order to consider Hill's charges. "We delayed because all of us realize it's a serious charge, and it needs to be explored," said Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. But that was two days after the Senate acted. In fact, the delay did not come about because the nomination process works or because Senators finally realized that an allegation of sexual harassment could not be dismissed summarily. The delay occurred because politicians know when their backs are against a wall. Their phones were ringing off the hook. By 5 to 1, citizens urged delay.

The Senators tacked with the political wind -- and a few were frank enough to admit it. "The Senate is on trial," said Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. "What is at stake is the integrity of the Senate," said John Kerry of Massachusetts. "We don't have the votes" to confirm Thomas, said minority leader Robert Dole of Kansas, explaining the Republicans' willingness to delay. Clearly, if the Senate really does awaken to the issue of sexual harassment, serendipity should be credited.

What might be done to reform the system? To achieve a balanced Supreme Court, the President could consciously nominate candidates known to disagree with his views. But that will never happen. The court is a political institution, and Presidents eager to project their policies beyond their own terms of office will invariably support Justices who share their outlook. Perhaps life tenure should be reconsidered. As contemplated by the Constitution's framers, life appointments guarantee independence. Could not the same goal be served with terms of 10 or 15 years, with the more frequent injection of new blood a healthy consequence? At a minimum, Justices should face mandatory retirement at, say, 70 or 75. Like most people, Justices usually suffer a decline in energy and acumen as they age.

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