The Senate’s Philadelphia lawyer
If you had told me last Saturday that one of Sen. Larry Craig’s Republican colleagues was covertly urging him to leave some wiggle room in his promise to resign, I like to think I instantly would have identified that colleague as Sen. Arlen Specter.
After all, the Pennsylvania Republican is a contrarian with his own notions about due process. Remember Specter’s attempt to render the Scottish verdict “not proven” at the end of Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial?
The same propensity to go his own way was evident when Specter went public with his take on the Craig case, in a characteristically self-referential riff on Fox News Sunday:
“I’d like to see Larry Craig go back to court, seek to withdraw his guilty plea and fight the case. I’ve had some experience in these kinds of matters since my days as Philadelphia district attorney and, on the evidence, Sen. Craig wouldn’t be convicted of anything, and he’s got his life on the line and 27 years in the House and the Senate, and I’d like to see him fight the case ‘cause I think he could be vindicated.”
“Thanks a lot, Arlen,” you can hear his Republican colleagues mutter. But assume for a minute that Craig is telling the truth that he didn’t try to engage a policeman in “lewd conduct” in that airport men’s room and that he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct only to make the embarrassment go away. Why shouldn’t Craig entertain a suggestion by Specter that he might belatedly beat the rap and hold on to his Senate seat?
That’s the thing about Specter, whose career I have followed for two decades: He often has a point even when he’s a pain. The problem with know-it-alls, someone once said, is that they often do know it all, that is. Specter may not know it all, but he knows a lot.
For example, unlike some of the poseurs on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter is an expert on constitutional law and a worthy sparring partner for Supreme Court nominees from Robert H. Bork to John Roberts. Other senators may be prepped by their staffs on legal arcana like the Supreme Court’s Ohio">Brandenburg test (for determining when an incitement to violence is protected by the First Amendment); Specter knew Brandenburg vs. Ohio backward and forward and was able to judge whether Bork was undergoing a “confirmation conversion” to the cause of free speech.
Specter ended up voting against Bork, alienating the conservatives who were pleased by his aggressive interrogation of Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas’ accuser. Most recently, Specter joined Democrats in savaging Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales (whom Specter had once praised as “a Horatio Alger story”). But he joined fellow Republicans to confirm Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. for lifetime appointments to the high court. And they call Bill Clinton a master of triangulation!
Specter’s nimbleness reflects not only his own independent streak but the fact that he is a Republican who must rely on Democratic support. Yet for some of his Bush-bashing constituents, Specter is too clever by half. Exhibit A is his handling of the Roberts and Alito nominations as chairman of the Judiciary Committee a perch from which some conservatives wanted to remove him after he suggested, in a burst of reelection exuberance, that the Senate wouldn’t approve a Supreme Court nominee who opposed Roe vs. Wade.
The pro-choice Specter was a tough taskmaster for Roberts and Alito, pressing them to affirm the importance of precedent after providing the visual aid of a chart showing 38 cases in which Roe vs. Wade was affirmed by the Supreme Court, making the mother of all abortion cases what Specter called a “super-duper precedent.” But in the end, Specter voted for both nominees. Earlier this year, Roberts and Alito joined a 5-4 decision upholding a federal ban on “partial-birth abortion.” Pro-choice activists were apoplectic. Et tu, Arlen?
But Specter can argue that his hectoring about “super-duper precedents” paid off. Neither Roberts nor Alito signed a concurring opinion by justices Thomas and Antonin Scalia suggesting that Roe should be reversed. It gets better: Specter had argued that “it is important for Judge Alito to have supporters who favor a woman’s right to choose, so that he does not feel in any way beholden to or confirmed by people who have one idea on some of these questions.”
If Larry Craig wants to challenge his conviction, I think he’s found the perfect lawyer.
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