First and more importantly, the irregularly-recurrent legal kabuki theater known as Supreme Court confirmation hearings have begun, this time for Solicitor General Elena Kagan’s nomination by the President to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. General Kagan gave a scripted opening statement, promising that her judicial philosophy would be a “modest” one but otherwise revealing nothing at all, which was followed by interminable hours of vacuous speech-making by the Senators on the panel. The end result is that the only fact which remarkable at all to be gleaned from this proceeding was Kagan’s use of the same word, “modest,” invoked by Chief Justice John Roberts in his confirmation hearings. Critics of Roberts have claimed that since assuming office, his rulings have been anything but modest; but to base such a criticism of Roberts on his confirmation hearings attributes a level of jurisprudential significance to them which is entirely fictitious. A similar, albeit politically reversed, dynamic is now all but certain to emerge when Justice Kagan is criticized in the future.
Second and more momentously, Robert Byrd has finally died. America’s longest-serving legislator, somehow forgiven within the Democratic party for having joined the Ku Klux Klan in his youth (he rose to the rank of “Grand Cyclops” and I don’t even pretend to know what that means), and the undertaker of the Atlas-like labor of moving the Federal government, bit by bit, to West Virgnia, Senator Byrd holds part of the record for elections to the Senate (nine times) and has been helping govern the nation and funnel more than West Virginia’s share of the Federal budget to that mountainous state since the Eisenhower Administration, earning him the title “Emperor Palpatine of Pork” by Citizens Against Government Waste. More recently, he tried to split the baby on the impeachment of President Clinton, moving to dismiss the charges against Clinton at the same time he insisted that what Clinton had done was a serious problem and voting to censure Clinton for his perjury; he also tried to have it both ways on abortion, flag desecration, same-sex marriage, and environmental protection. Thoroughly a creature of Washington politics, Byrd’s passage will be missed greatly in his home state but in my mind he was a symbol of everything I dislike about the way politics is done in the contemporary era. While I frankly welcome his absence from the Senate, I realistically anticipate that his replacement will be someone very much like himself (West Virginia’s Governor is a Democrat) and of course he was loved by his family and friends and their grief at his loss should be acknowledged and respected regardless of the now-departed Senator’s political history.