For crying out loud

Martha Ann Alito

Even a stone would have wept

During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Sam Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court, the moment of highest drama was provided by Sam's poor wife Martha Ann who broke down in tears on the third day. I wanted to cry over the hearings, too, but for entirely different reasons.

Danziger
Jeff Danziger (Click image to enlarge)

The media naturally latched onto this bit of unrestrained emotion, since nothing else was going on. There's not much a headline writer can do with answers to more than 800 questions (but who was counting?) that amounted to little more than "I'm not going to answer, and you can't make me!"

Sam and Martha Alito leave the hearing room
Come along, little woman

I felt sorry for poor Martha Ann, not the least because no one should have to go through life being called "Martha Ann." My issue was that she had to be there in the hearing room every day, all day, in the first place. She wasn't the one applying for a job. She should have been allowed to watch (or not watch) from the privacy of her own home, just like the rest of us. But no, Sam had to drag her along to participate in the tableau vivant of The Family. She had to play the role of The Loving Wife. The media insist on it. All politicians have to showcase The Family, and if they don't, the media treat it as a symptom of something peculiar. (Remember the missing Mrs Dean from the last primary elections?) Almost anyone who had to spend four days being treated as a stage prop, would have cried too.

The Family
The Alito Family (click picture to enlarge)

And it isn't just The Wife. The Family for a Supreme Court Nominee must also include The Parents, The Children, The Siblings— Who knows, probably The Second-Cousins, too, if they're photogenic or ethnic. No, a story is just not complete these days without The Family, from the attack on the World Trade Center, to trapped coal miners, to missing blond, Caucasian women in Aruba, to brain-dead Terry Schiavo, to Supreme Court nominations.

An even greater cause for despair, however, was the content of the hearings themselves. To my way of thinking, when you call something a "hearing" that implies that the people holding the hearing will be listening, not speeching. (Yes, I know that's not a word— but it should be.) A hearing is supposed to be for the purpose of gathering information, but most of the Senators treated it as an opportunity to either (a) try to make the nominee look good or (b) try to make themselves look good or (c) both of the above.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was one of the most egregious practitioners of strewing rose petals in the path of the nominee. Take the following "question" for example:

SPECTER [Chairman]: Senator Sessions, do you have any questions?

SESSIONS: Just a few. I would just respond to Senator Schumer and Senator Kennedy, and would note that that's not what the ABA has concluded. They've interviewed 300 of your colleagues, judges and lawyers who practice before you and against you, and they rate you the highest possible rating. They don't see you as an extremist, out of the mainstream or otherwise.

And I also want to thank your family for their patience in going through all of this and listening to those of us on this side as we expostulate on all sorts of things.

And I see your sister back there, in your own right a nationally known attorney.

Rosemary, it's good to see you here.

I understand you were debate partners in high school. It must have been an interesting household to have two prominent lawyers growing up.

So I'll ask you how that was and who was the best debater.

It is to weep.

Senator Joe Biden (D-DL), prospective Democratic candidate for president in 2008, simply cannot resist the temptation to fill any silence with the sound of his own voice. When he starts to ask a "question," you can take a bathroom break, fix lunch, and do a load of laundry, all before he stops to take his first breath. By one count, Biden got in three words for every one of Alito's. It's a shame he rarely gets around to asking an actual question, because he is one of the sharper tacks in the committee, and could elicit useful responses from the nominee if he'd put his mind to it.

It is to weep.

There is no requirement that the Senate even hold hearings in its advice and consent role on nominations. Biden caused a stir among the commentariat by suggesting that the hearings are a waste of time. I wouldn't go quite that far, but I would say that it is time to change how the hearings are conducted. Two main issues have to be addressed:

• Getting Senators to ask questions rather than make speeches or market the nominee of their party. Maybe each Senator should be allowed five questions (some number), forcing them to prioritize. Maybe each Senator should be allowed ten minutes of questions, but no more than two minutes for any one question. There's gotta be a better way.

• Getting the nominee to actually say something substantive and not weasel out of answering all significant questions. Obviously we don't want nominees to say how they will vote on particular cases, but we do want to hear about things like presidential power, personal liberty and choice, civil rights. Maybe the committe should give immediate feedback on whether each of the nominee's responses answers the question that was asked, the same way television and movie producers get feedback from test audiences. Imagine the effect it might have if each Senator had two lights in front of them, red for "not responsive" and green for "is answering the question." Impose some consequences: if the nominee doesn't answer, he or she doesn't get approved. There's gotta be a better way.