absolute POWER CORRUPTS absolutely

Excerpts from a speech for MoveOn PAC, April 27, 2005, Washington D.C. Full text is available at www.moveonpac.org
Four years and four months ago, the Supreme Court of the United States, in a bitterly divided 5 to 4 decision, issued an unsigned opinion that the majority cautioned should never be used as a precedent for any subsequent case anywhere in the federal court system. Their ruling conferred the presidency on a candidate who had lost the popular vote, and it inflamed partisan passions that had already been aroused by the long and hard-fought election campaign. I couldn’t have possibly disagreed more strongly with the opinion that I read shortly before midnight that evening, December 12, 2000. But I knew what course of action best served our Republic. Even though many of my supporters said they were unwilling to accept a ruling which they suspected was brazenly partisan in its motivation, I went before the American people less than 24 hours later to reaffirm the bedrock principle that we are a nation of laws, not men. “There is a higher duty than the one we owe to a political party,” I said. “This is America and we put country before party.” Having gone through that experience, I can tell you—without any doubt whatsoever—that if the Justices who formed the majority in Bush v. Gore had not only all been nominated to the Court by a Republican president, but had also been confirmed by only Republican Senators in party-line votes, America would not have accepted that court’s decision. Moreover, if the confirmation of those Justices in the majority had been forced through by running roughshod over 200 years of Senate precedents in a party line vote to break the Senate’s rules—then no speech imaginable could have calmed the passions aroused in our country. Over the long term, making our federal judiciary vulnerable to the perception that it is merely an instrument for politics by other means would threaten the very foundation of our democracy. The integrity – even the survival – of American democracy depends upon the rule of law. Respect for the rule of law rests, in turn, upon the integrity with which our laws are written, interpreted and enforced—and upon our having, as James Madison envisioned, a “deliberative democracy.” Madison knew that the essential alchemy of democracy – whereby just power is derived from the consent of the governed – can only occur in a process that is genuinely deliberative. So it is no accident that our founders gave judges appointments for life—to ensure an independent judiciary, or that they empowered the Senate to pass judgment on their fitness. For the Senate, unlike the House, was structured to encourage a reflective frame of mind, a distance from the passions of the voters and a capacity for deliberation. I am deeply concerned by Republican efforts to undermine the rule of law by stripping the Senate of its right to extended debate over judicial nominations and by engaging in outright threats and intimidation against federal judges with whose decisions they disagree. Even after a judge was murdered in his Atlanta courtroom and the husband and mother of a federal judge were murdered in Chicago, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives responded to rulings in the Terri Schiavo case, by saying ominously: “The time will come for the men responsible for this to pay for their behavior.” Representative DeLay claimed his words had been chosen badly but, in the next breath, issued new threats against the same courts: “We set up the courts. We can unset the courts. We have the power of the purse.” The Chief of Staff for a Republican senator called for “mass impeachment” under the bizarre theory that the President can declare that any judge is no longer exhibiting “good behavior.” The elected and appointed Republican officials who made these dangerous statements are reflecting the views of some extremist organizations that make up a growing part of their passionate base of support. The leader of one such group, the Family Research Council, recently said, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to take a black robe off the bench.” Another influential leader, James Dobson added, “The Congress can simply disenfranchise a court. They don’t have to fire anybody or impeach them or go through that battle. All they have to do is say the 9th Circuit doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s gone.” This new assault on the integrity of our constitutional design is fueled by a small group claiming special knowledge of God’s will in American politics and charging those of us who disagree with their point of view with waging war against “people of faith.” Yet, long before our founders met in Philadelphia, their forbears came to these shores to escape oppression at the hands of despots who mixed religion with politics and claimed dominion over both their pocketbooks and their souls. This aggressive new strain of right-wing religious zealotry is actually a throw-back to the intolerance that led to the creation of America in the first place. Unfortunately these extremists, who are committed to changing the basic nature of our democracy, appear to wield enough political power within the Republican party today to force the destructive constitutional confrontation now pending in the Senate. The arguments they are pressing are no less than an American heresy—a highly developed political philosophy fundamentally at odds with the founding principles of the United States of America. We began as a nation with a clear formulation of the basic relationship between God, our rights as individuals, and the government we created to secure those rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” our founders declared. “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…” But while our rights come from God, as our founders added, “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.” So, unlike our inalienable rights, our laws are human creations that derive their moral authority from our consent to their enactment. In pursuing the elimination of the filibuster, these extremists are seeking to undermine the deliberative character of our democracy because it stands in the way of their quest for absolute power. Their goal: an all-powerful executive using a weakened legislature to fashion a compliant judiciary in its own image.

“Their goal: an all-powerful executive using a weakened legislature to fashion a compliant judiciary...”
This agenda is supported by an unholy alliance of religious extremists and greedy special interests. Should they win, Americans will face the elimination of basic safeguards and protections established for middle class families throughout the 20th century and a complete revision of the historic insulation of the rule of law from sectarian dogma. Our founders understood that there is in all human beings a natural instinct for power. That is why they established a system of checks and balances; to prevent the accretion of too much power in any one set of hands. The rules and traditions of the Senate derive from a desire to protect the interests of the minority. The filibuster has been at the heart of this tradition for almost all of our 230 years. Never before has anyone felt compelled to try to eliminate it by breaking the rules. So it is not as a Democrat but as an American, that I appeal to the leadership of the majority in the Senate to halt the effort to break the Senate’s rules and instead to protect a meaningful role in the confirmation of judges and Justices for Senators of both parties. Remember that you will not always be in the majority—but much more importantly, remember what is best for our country regardless of which party is temporarily in power.

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