Senate Democrats said yesterday that they will invoke the vast disparities in income and living conditions laid bare by the Hurricane Katrina disaster to sharpen their questioning of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. at his confirmation hearings next week.Or did Leahy watch the scenes of hardship on television with a growing sense of how he might try to get the upper hand at the Roberts hearings?
The scenes of devastation featuring primarily poor African-American residents in New Orleans have highlighted the widening gap between rich and poor, said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts.
With Roberts having urged a narrow interpretation of civil rights laws in the past, Senate Democrats will link the scenes of economic hardship with the constitutional and legal issues that surround efforts to address racial and economic inequalities, he said.
''We have made very important progress over the period of the last 50 years in knocking down walls of discrimination so that people can participate and be a part of a changed America," said Kennedy, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. ''And he's going to be asked to explain some of his advice that would have, I think, undermined that progress in important ways."...
Roberts has appeared headed for relatively easy confirmation. But Democrats and liberal groups hope that issues raised by Katrina offer a new opening to critique his record on civil rights and to point out differences between Democrats, who favor a powerful role for the federal government, and Republicans, who are more deferential to the states.
Leahy said he watched the scenes of hardship on television with a growing sense of anger over the inability to deliver services to those who depend most on the government, issues he said would come up during the Roberts hearings.
But a Supreme Court justice should have sensitivity about the plight of the poor and the country's longterm problems with racism. Many judges come from relatively privileged backgrounds, and one does have to worry that their judgment will be off as they weigh interests and think about remedies.
It's unpleasant, however, to see the great Katrina catastrophe used to score political points, and politicians that do that risk their own reputations. But at the same time, Katrina has made us look at an aspect of American life that is usually far in the background. It forced us to see how many poor people there are, how so many of them are black, and how government can fail them.
We will see how Kennedy, Leahy, and the others handle themselves if they decide to use this strategy. Of course, Roberts can be counted on to respond well. If those are to be the questions, he will give just the right answers, demonstrating his strong understanding of the problems of poverty and racisim and tying that to his profound commitment to the Constitution.
IN THE COMMENTS: Someone notes Senator Kennedy's experience with the subject drowning. He will want to refrain from saying things trigger that association.