NYT's Court Reporter Takes Parting Shot at Bork, Says Ruth Bader Ginsburg Centrist

July 15th, 2008 1:20 PM
The New York Times sent veteran Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse into retirement in grand style on Sunday, turning over to her the front page of the Week in Review for "2,691 Decisions," a title marking the number of court cases she had covered during her tenure.

Unmentioned were her off-the-clock denunciations of conservatives, such as her infamous speech at Harvard in June 2006 when she tore into the Bush administration. What was included: Her clear belief that the world is a better place with Anthony Kennedy on the Court and Robert Bork not.

First, some of what Greenhouse told Harvard students in 2006:

...our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and other places around the world. And let's not forget the sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism."

Seven of the eight Marines charged with crimes related to the so-called massacre at Haditha have had their charges dropped, making Greenhouse's reckless charge officially false. Later in that same speech, Greenhouse hinted at what she might do upon retiring from the Supreme Court beat -- parrot liberal talking points on illegal immigration.

I suppose that if I had to boil down my side of the argument with my mother to one thought, it would be that in my lifetime, I have seen the fences around nearly all these definitions lowered, with a corresponding increase in the opportunities to make and maintain connections across barriers that not so long ago were nearly impermeable. As I look toward the next chapter in my life, I feel a growing sense of obligation to reach across the absurd literal fence that some of our policy makers want to build on the Mexican border and to do what I can to help those whose only offense is to want to improve their lives.

In Greenhouse's long valedictory article on Sunday, she spoke of how excited she was to hear of President Reagan's nomination of the first woman to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor: "I was thrilled in a way I would never have predicted." So caught up was Greenhouse in the idea of a female Justice, she actually spoke to O'Connor in dreams.

Greenhouse rounded off her reflections with the 1987 harbinger of today's brutal court fights -- the left's assault on Reagan's Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Of course, Greenhouse doesn't see it that way -- her criticism of Ted Kennedy's disgraceful smearing of Bork was mild and implicit:

President Reagan nominated Robert Bork, a well-known conservative, to the "swing" seat on the court being vacated by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. I knew Bob Bork. He had been a professor of mine at Yale, an urbane and witty man who bore little resemblance to the instant portrait painted by his opponents. ("In Robert Bork's America," Senator Edward M. Kennedy famously said in response to the nomination, "there is no room at the inn for blacks and no place in the Constitution for women, and in our America there should be no seat on the Supreme Court for Robert Bork.") The day he was nominated, I left a message on his home answering machine. "Congratulations, and keep your sense of humor," I said. "I think you'll need it."

His sense of humor failed him. As the hearings went on, he became testy and abrupt. When he said that serving on the court would be an "intellectual feast," he was simply being honest. It would have been more politic, but less candid, to claim that he was motivated by a desire to serve the cause of justice. He and his supporters emerged from defeat filled with bitterness, persuaded that he had been dealt an unfair hand.

To the contrary, I thought then and think now that the debate had been both fair and profound. In five days on the witness stand, Judge Bork had a chance to explain himself fully, to describe and defend his view that the Constitution's text and the intent of its 18th-century framers provided the only legitimate tools for constitutional interpretation. Through televised hearings that engaged the public to a rare degree, the debate became a national referendum on the modern course of constitutional law. Judge Bork's constitutional vision, anchored in the past, was tested and found wanting, in contrast to the later declaration by Judge Anthony M. Kennedy, the successful nominee, that the Constitution's framers had "made a covenant with the future."

Among the "fair and profound" points raised by Democrats were questions about Bork's beard and his "strange lifestyle" (courtesy of Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin).

Greenhouse is taking questions from readers this week at nytimes.com. One insight: She will apparently go into retirement thinking that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former ACLU lawyer and chief litigator for its Women's Rights Project, is a centrist jurist.

Here's how Greenhouse answered a question on how the ideology of Supreme Court justices shift once they're draped in the robes of the highest court in the land, and whether such shifts have made Senate confirmation hearings obsolete:

It's hard to generalize about the confirmation process. Each Supreme Court nomination/confirmation has its own dynamic, depending on which seat is being filled, what the relationship is between the President and the Senate, how the President chooses to use the nomination power, and what issues are most salient in the country at the time. Nominations get in trouble when the President tries to use them to push beyond the boundaries of the existing political consensus. That was the Bork nomination problem. It was also the first Bush administration's problem with the Clarence Thomas nomination -- which of course succeeded, unlike the Bork nomination, but succeeded only barely and after a rough fight. By contrast, President Clinton played to the center, not the left, in selecting Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, nominations that were well received in the country and that were confirmed unanimously or nearly so. So it's really up to the President to decide at the outset how to play it.

Republicans didn't go after Ginsburg or Breyer with anything resembling the viciousness the left employed against Reagan's failed nominee Robert Bork or Bush Sr.'s successful one, Clarence Thomas, but Greenhouse missed that detail.

The Times has often denied Ginsburg's liberalism, as demonstrated by this headline from June 27, 1993 after her nomination by President Clinton: "Balanced Jurist at Home in the Middle."