Arlen Specter, Stout Senate Inquisitor of Judges, Dies at 82

Laurence Arnold

Bloomberg News

Published: Sunday, Oct. 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — Arlen Specter, who brought a prosecutor's focus on detail and disdain for deception to the job of U.S. senator, representing Pennsylvania as a Republican for 29 years and a Democrat for his unorthodox final year, has died. He was 82.

He died Sunday at his home in Philadelphia, the Associated Press reported, citing his son, Shanin. The cause was complications from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In 2005, Specter announced he had Hodgkin's disease, cancer of the lymphatic system, and received chemotherapy. A recurrence three years later required further treatment.

A former district attorney of Philadelphia, Specter showed off his mastery of the fine points of law while serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee during his entire 30-year congressional career.

His stubborn independence and flashes of contempt for those who disagreed with him earned him the nickname "Snarlin' Arlen." Weighing the removal of President Bill Clinton on two counts of impeachment in 1999, Specter criticized the "pseudo- trial" the Senate had held and, citing Scottish law, chose to vote "not proven" rather than guilty or not guilty.

He participated in the confirmation hearings of 13 nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, including, notably, that of Clarence Thomas in 1991.

In televised hearings that inflamed racial and gender divisions and riveted a national audience, Specter became one of the harshest questioners and outspoken doubters of Anita Hill, a law professor. She testified that Thomas had repeatedly talked about sex and pornographic films while he was her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The Senate narrowly confirmed Thomas, 52 to 48, with Specter among those who voted yes.

In a 2001 interview with C-Span's Brian Lamb, Specter said his failure to grasp the degree of animosity he had earned for his aggressive questioning of Hill almost cost him re-election in 1992. Still, he defended his tough stance toward Hill.

"Now, what occurred between Clarence Thomas and Professor Anita Hill, I don't know," he said. "But I do know that she had to be questioned about how she could have such a continuing, detailed, friendly relationship with him if what had happened had been so bad, had been harassment."

In another high-profile Supreme Court confirmation battle, Specter was among six Republicans who joined Democrats in 1987 in rejecting Robert Bork, who had been nominated by President Ronald Reagan.

During the Judiciary Committee hearings, Specter grilled Bork on his approach to constitutional analysis. Specter later said that his own view of the U.S. constitution "as a living document," one that could evolve to encompass the right to counsel, for example, was incompatible with Bork's doctrine of adhering to the "original intent" of its framers.

After his defeat, Bork accused Specter of having come into the hearings with his mind already made up. Not true, Specter told the Pennsylvania Cable Network in an oral-history interview after he left the Senate.

"That summer I had spent two weeks at the seashore reading all of his materials, all of his speeches, all of his opinions," said Specter, who vacationed with his family each summer on New Jersey's Long Beach Island. "I knew more about his record than he did."

In his first experience with a congressional inquiry, Specter served as an assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, which in 1964 investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was a key advocate of the so-called single bullet theory, the commission's conclusion that one high-velocity bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald passed through the president and then struck Texas Governor John Connally, seated in front of Kennedy in the open-air limousine.

The single bullet theory became a linchpin in the conclusion, debated for decades, that Oswald acted alone and not as part of a conspiracy.

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