A Nexis search finds more than 50 mentions of "kabuki"– a form of Japanese theater that has become journalese for empty, stylized ritual — in news stories about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
The most common explanation for why judicial confirmation hearings have become such empty rituals is that the Senate’s rejection of Judge Robert Bork in 1987 — after the conservative Reagan nominee had answered dozens of questions about his "originalist" judicial philosophy — proved that candor could be fatal for any nominee.
Since the Bork nomination, "the goal for judicial nominees has been to skate through by saying as little as possible as politely as possible," the New York Times observed in an editorial Tuesday.
There is much truth in this. But Bork’s fate did not prove that nominees have to hide or misrepresent their judicial philosophies in order to get confirmed.
For one thing, Bork probably would have been defeated even if he had ducked the questions about his judicial philosophy, as subsequent nominees have done.
For another, Sotomayor very probably would have been confirmed by a wide margin — albeit with a bit more difficulty — even if she had been far more forthcoming about her views of the law, and less determined to deny the apparent meaning of her controversial past statements.
It would be improper for judicial nominees to answer senators’ questions about specific issues that might come before them, for the reasons that I discussed on this blog. But there is no ethical requirement that nominees duck general questions about judicial philosophy. And it is affirmatively unethical to give deliberately deceptive answers.
Before Bork, most 20th-century nominees were not pressed as hard on their judicial philosophies and found it fairly easy to duck any uncongenial questions. Indeed, Antonin Scalia was confirmed 98-0 in 1986, amid much celebration of his role as the first Italian justice, despite his refusal to say even whether he agreed with the 1803 decision in Marbury v. Madison, the foundation stone of judicial review of executive and legislative actions.
As Bork himself has often said, he had little choice but to explain his long history of denouncing decades of Supreme Court precedents. Indeed, in speeches shortly before his nomination, he had called for an originalist wave that would "sweep the elegant, erudite, pretentious and toxic detritus of nonoriginalism out to sea.”
Many of the precedents Bork denounced as unjustified by anything in the text or original intent of the Constitution — such as the 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, protecting a right to use contraception — were quite popular with the public. Nor did most voters want the court to overturn Roe v. Wade. And Bork seemed likely to provide the fifth vote to do just that. Indeed, he told me in a recent interview, published in Newsweek, that he would have overruled Roe.
If Bork had no-commented questions about the major overhaul of constitutional law that his many speeches and articles seemed to seek, he would have been defined by his liberal critics. And they portrayed him not merely as a force for radical change — a plausible claim that might alone have derailed him in a Senate controlled by Democrats — but also as a kind of monster.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., famously greeted Bork’s nomination with these words: "Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, [and] writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the government."
Bork was also pounded by liberal groups in misleading TV ads and by Democratic senators who used ludicrous distortions of his decisions to brand him a "a gargoyle, a sexist, a racist, an invader of the bedroom, a sterilizer of women," as Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., a Bork supporter, later complained.
Judge Sotomayor’s record was also distorted by some critics — notably by misportraying as "judicial activism" a speech in which she made a perfectly reasonable observation that "policy is made" by courts of appeals when they set precedents. But the attacks on her were not remotely like the wholesale demonization of Bork.
To be sure, the Bork hearing was also "a fascinating tutorial for the American people on the foundations of our constitutional system," featuring high-toned debates among some of the nation’s most eminent constitutional theorists, as civil rights lawyer William L. Taylor recently wrote in the National Law Journal.
But the testimony by such luminaries that Bork would upend constitutional law if confirmed put all the more pressure on him to explain himself.
Explain he did. But while seeking to downplay his more radical past statements — by, for example, emphasizing the importance of respecting precedent far more than he had done in his speeches — Bork by and large sought to explain and justify what he had meant, in part by stressing what he saw as the limited role the courts should play in democratic governance.
Judge Sotomayor, on the other hand, arguably went further than any recent nominee in denying the apparent meaning of her own more controversial prior statements. That’s why some liberal legal experts, such as Louis Michael Seidman of Georgetown Law School, have joined conservatives in suggesting that portions of her testimony seemed deliberately deceptive.
It’s instructive to compare Judge Sotomayor’s testimony with that in 2005 by John Roberts, who was himself accused of being disingenuous, or worse, by Senate Democrats during the Sotomayor hearing and, earlier, by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (Reid did not identify a single false statement.)
Roberts somewhat misleadingly likened the judicial role to that of an umpire calling balls and strikes. Similarly, Sotomayor provided a misleadingly simplistic description of the unavoidably subjective decisions that judges and justices must make, when she made assertions like "as a judge, I don’t make law."
Roberts also suggested implausibly that controversial memos he had written many years before as a young Reagan Justice Department lawyer did not necessarily represent his personal views even when he wrote them. Similarly, Sotomayor suggested implausibly that she had not necessarily agreed with the many aggressively liberal lawsuits brought by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund when she was on the board of directors and its litigation committee many years ago.
But Sotomayor went beyond anything that Roberts had done when she disavowed the apparent meaning of the many controversial assertions in her own "wise Latina" speeches, and in some other speeches. She was also stunningly blunt in rejecting President Obama’s oft-stated view that "empathy" is the critical ingredient for a good justice.
No nominee has to do that. Least of all the nominee of a popular president whose party enjoys a 60-40 majority in the Senate.