Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Battle to Replace Sandra Day

In the 72 hours since Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement, what hasn't been said, re-stated, and regurgitated? Editorialists, poli-pundits, and novelists have all printed their two-cent speculations about the future Congressional battle to name O'Connor's replacement.

The Chief Justice's noble, yet fragile appearance at President Bush's inauguration in January ignited a fire-storm of debate that centered around who will replace Rehnquist when/if he retires during this off-season. Those discussions are now sideshows to the current media circus.

Within hours of O'Connor's announcement, interest groups such as Progress for America and People for the American Way started multi-million-dollar campaigns to get the public involved. But why?

The people, the voters, the common men and women with 9-to-5 jobs, two kids and a mortgage will not be debating O'Connor's replacement on the floor of Congress - church fellowship halls, office breakrooms, or small-town taverns, maybe. But, these "public" debates mean very little and most will be paraphrased material from the editorial and op-ed pages of the local newspaper. Americans will consume these opinions like the roast beef at a Golden Corral.

It's been more than a decade since the last Supreme Court justice was nominated to the bench. The last time the process made such waves was during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy. Outside of that, Americans know very little about how a justice is nominated and approved to sit on the nation's highest bench.

Eventually, when all the angles have been drawn and re-drawn, newspapers and cable news talk shows will start to look and sound like Cliffs Notes for American Law. Candidate backgrounds will be feature stories and weighed against public opinion polls surrounding hot-button issues such as abortion, the death penalty, federalism, and gay marriage. The public will be watching and reading, but what about the President? What about Congress who will vote to accept or deny a nomination?

Outside of the few political science courses I've taken, I know very little about the Court except, maybe, broad generalizations. Even, this, I wasn't aware of until I read the comments posted by ami1 and kilgore trout on Jay Rosen's PressThink.org blog circling the "liberal" Court of the '60s and '70s.

That Court and the current Court (before O'Connor's retirement) have a lot in common. Both symbolize the culture of the times. Vietnam, Woodstock, gender and racial equality; they all highlighted the '60s and '70s. Those years were progressively liberal. The current Court is as divided as our country; split along party lines.

Which comes first, public opinion or the opinions of the Supreme Court? With the nation so passionately divided, the debates on the Congress floor will be as heated as any we've ever seen. A nation so entertained by reality programming will see a new reality, one that could change everything it knows to be history. Freedoms and rights could be re-defined. Changes in religion and technology are on the horizon. There will be a battle in Washington this Summer and the media will find itself educating the public as well as entertaining it. Who will be the next American Idol?

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