Higher Standards for Justice

by Zach Hyatt | 11/7/05 6:00am

Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court was defeated by conservative ideologues not content with Miers' conservative credentials: she did not have a documented history of social conservatism and the White House was unable to convince its conservative base that she was "one of them." The White House's feeble attempts to quell the conservatives' doubts -- with winks, nods, and a declaration of her devout "Christian-ness" -- proved about as effective as the Bay of Pigs. The (Christian) Right wanted to know, not just be told, that Miers was a devout Christian; they wanted to know that Miers had a reactionary ideology that she would aggressively bring to the Court as a justice. As Bush did not provide them with these assurances, they killed Miers' nomination.

However, one of the most popular criticisms of Miers -- on both sides of the aisle -- regarded her experience and intellectual capacity. Senators, including Pennsylvanian Republican Arlen Specter, questioned whether Miers had a sufficient background in constitutional law; basically, whether she was smart enough to be a Supreme Court justice.

In fact, in replacing Miers with Samuel A. Alito Jr., Bush seems to have chosen the 'anti-Miers.' Bush, quoted October 31 in the New York Times, declared that Judge Alito has "more prior judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in more than 70 years." Alito is a documented conservative -- which is the primary reason that Bush nominated him -- but he is also Ivy League-educated and extremely experienced. The conservatives might have demanded a conservative, but Bush also understood that the country demanded an intelligent, educated, and qualified nominee.

So why do we, as a country, demand so much from a Supreme Court justice and so little from a president?

Conservative readers, before you try and stone me, listen to what I have to say. Most would agree that Bush was less intelligent or knowledgeable than either of his opponents in 2000 and 2004. Why do we ask more of a Supreme Court justice -- only one of nine who make the final decisions on important matters -- than we do of the ultimate decision maker of the Executive branch?

I have two theories as to why this may be the case. The first deals with the relative transparency of each institution. The Presidency used to be considered a hallowed position, one with mystery and gravitas; a president was something of an authority on high. However, in light of scandals such as Watergate, the media has probed further into the workings of the White House. The Presidency lost its mystique. The resulting modern consensus: anyone can be president.

In contrast, the Supreme Court has remained rather distant (read: lofty). People know very little of the justices' lives or the inner workings of the Court beyond official written decisions. In general, the Court is still in its fog of mystery, and most still believe that one must be of a greater stock than the average person to be a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. Not surprisingly, the country still expects more of a justice than it does of the president.

My second theory stems directly from who selects each. The United States Senate confirms a justice for the Supreme Court. It is the people who select the president. The Senators have a much better idea of what is required for a person to be a competent justice than the people have for a president. The people just do not realize how smart, knowledgeable and experienced one must be to make a good president. And because the people don't really have a conception of what a justice actually does, they defer to the judgment of the senators.

What is to be done, then? Will our people continue to propagate the reign of mediocrity, or will they demand that the man in the Oval Office should be one endowed with extraordinary intellect? Will the people ever again choose a president based on his abilities and not on the oh-so-important qualification of "He seems like the kinda guy I could sit down and have a beer with?" Bush once said at a commencement speech at Yale University, "To those of you graduating with an A average, congratulations; for those of you graduating with a C average, even you can become president of the United States." He is right -- one's grades in college make a poor barometer for success as the Leader of the Free World -- but to actively encourage mediocrity is to lead this nation to just that end.

There are certainly qualitative differences between the functions of the president and of a Supreme Court justice. Stirring oratory, leadership and motivational skills and strategic thinking are all crucial traits for a president, and are perhaps less important for a successful Supreme Court justice. However, these differences are more superficial than one might think. A justice interprets the law and a president executes it (though in this day it is accurate to say that the Executive Branch helps write the law too). In both cases, a firm understanding of the law is crucial. The problem still exists, then, that our country no longer insists on having a qualified president.

There is only one answer: demand more of a president, as we do for a justice. Accordingly, we must enlighten the people as to how important it really is to have an able captain at the helm. If the presidency is demystified, then let the people see how hard the job really is. Let them see what is required. Only then can we -- as we must -- demand more.

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