Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Alito A-go-go

Yesterday I drove up to Austin to take care of a few loose odds and ends there. On my way up, as soon as I got within range, I started listening to KUT Radio, the local NPR station up there. They were carrying NPR coverage of the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice nominee Samuel Alito. Which brings to mind several things:

1. How great is KUT? I know that some other people have special fondness for other NPR stations where they have lived (I hear the San Fran station is terrific), but of all the places I've lived (not too many), Austin has by far the best NPR station. It's SO much better than KUHF in Houston, which definitely did not carry coverage of Alito's confirmation hearings. I think that broadcasting that coverage is a very good, civic-minded thing to do, because I think the hearings are an important event. So I admire KUT for carrying the coverage and I also admire Austinites for supporting the kind of radio station that provides that kind of good broadcasting. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, for example, KUT broadcasts snippets of important audio moments in civil rights history, including MLK's entire "I Have a Dream" speech. It's totally cool. KUT is a great local NPR station.

2. That having been said . . . how much of a joke are these confirmation hearings? And even though I just wrote about how great it is that KUT broadcasts coverage of this important event, I'm partly serious. After listening to a few hours of the Senate's Q&A session with Judge Alito, I've come to a few conclusions. First, Samuel Alito is clearly an intelligent, well-spoken man . . . who is intelligent and well-spoken enough not to answer any questions in a particularly incriminating manner. The senators basically seem to spend the hearings chasing him around in mental circles, trying to catch up with him (i.e., trying to pin him down to a position OR trying to spar with him verbally and intellectually), but failing. He answers questions, yes, but he often answers them without actually saying anything.

But, he only does this because of my second observation, which is that confirmation hearings are basically a platform from which senators can play lawyer for a day and try to demonstrate their legal acumen, which is small, especially in comparison to Judge Alito's. They either ask vague conceptual questions ("What do you think about judicial activism?") that prompt vague conceptual answers, or they try to pin Alito down on certain issues by asking unformed hypotheticals ("If this had happened in a certain case, would you have decided it differently?"). Such poor questions naturally don't get the hearings anywhere. But, they do allow the senators to throw around case names like Lopez and Dole and Roe v. Wade, posture, and try to sound like they know what they're talking about.

I don't know if Alito will or should get confirmed. But I do admire him for sitting through the hearings, listening to senators bloviate, and still managing to sound civil, composed, and intelligent when he has the chance to speak. That's impressive.


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