When Robert H. Bork was nominated last year to be a U.S. Supreme Court justice by President Reagan, the resulting confirmation hearings turned into a circus that some critics said looked like a political election.
There were media campaigns, polling techniques, political rhetoric, distortion of the nominee's legal qualifications, plus grandstanding by senators for the TV cameras.In order to avoid a repetition of the Bork spectacle, a privately financed committee of lawyers the Task Force on Judicial Selection this week recommended that Supreme Court nominees no longer openly testify at formal confirmation hearings.
While one can sympathize with the task force desire to avoid a political circus and keep debate on a more relevant level, it's too late to turn back the clock to the days when nominees did not testify.
The practice of having nominees appear before senators to be grilled is a relatively recent practice. It was first done in 1925 with Harlan F. Stone. It didn't happen again until 1939 with Felix Frankfurter.
It would be nice if nominations to the Supreme Court didn't turn into grubby political fights with senators using the forum to play to a public audience. But with all the power that Supreme Court justices have come to wield in modern America, the people need to know what a nominee believes, at least in a broad sense.
That some senators distort the process or ask unfair, irrelevant, or even stupid questions, is the price paid for necessary exposure of the nominee and his views to the public. Even Bork supporters in the Senate agree on this.
The public relations blitz that Bork endured should not be repeated. It was unfair, often factually wrong, and was demeaning. But trying to eliminate public testimony by a nominee is not the answer.