The Nation: Nixon's Court: Its Making and Its Meaning

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In all, Nixon emerged looking somewhat better than he deserved. As soon as the President had ended his speech, Mitchell released the text of a letter canceling the Administration's arrangement to consult the A.B.A. before making any further nominations. Because the names were leaked, Mitchell said, the process could not work. There was some sense that the Administration was trying to shift the blame for the quality of the candidates on to the A.B.A. What role the A.B.A. should play in nominations is a tough question. Friday and Mrs. Lillie now find themselves stigmatized as "unfit." It can be unseemly and even a bit cruel to subject potential candidates to such sudden and often aggressively hostile scrutiny.

But as the A.B.A.'s Lawrence Walsh argues, it makes good sense to circulate names of possible Supreme Court candidates before nomination. For one thing, opinions are much more candid than they would be if a man is already appointed and confirmation seems likely. Besides, Government secrecy is already several chapters past the ludicrous. Why should Supreme Court nominations be treated with the obscure Price Waterhouse precautions of an Academy Award selection? However embarrassing, the process of prior consultation in this case worked to the advantage of the court and of Nixon himself.

Blunted Shift

In his speech. Nixon sportily called the Supreme Court "the fastest track in the nation." But the better analogy is not to horse racing but to football, one of the human experiences that genuinely excite the President. He huddled with his players, called a play, went to the line, read the defense like a good quarterback and then called an audible from scrimmage: an end sweep.

The opposing team, as Nixon intended, seemed at least temporarily baffled. Edward Kennedy, like other Senate liberals, was almost flat-footedly cautious, saying that he was glad Nixon"has pulled back from the brink he was approaching." Edmund Muskie, the front-running Democratic presidential noncandidate, declared: "I'll approach the nominations with a positive attitude." Senate Republicans sighed in relief. Said G.O.P. National Chairman Robert Dole: "They'll sail right through."

Not quite. Of the two nominees, Powell seems "cleaner." He does not appear to be heading for trouble with civil rights groups, since he has a reputation as a racial moderate. Rehnquist, however, will probably invite closer examination because of his role as a Justice Department spokesman endorsing the mass arrests last May Day in Washington, and because of his resolutely truculent views on the rights of dissent.

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