Barack Obama has chosen a running mate that shares his views on fiscal policy, healthcare, education, the war on terror, and…Clarence Thomas? It seems that the presumptive Democratic nominee, fresh off his remarks at Saddleback, has selected Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) as his VP. Biden is widely-respected as the Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, but before he assumed this position he was Chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary (1987-1995; ranking member: 1981-1987, 1995-1997). Biden thus has an interesting track record on Supreme Court nominations ⎯ one that already has the McCain camp swooning as they scramble to label him a judicial extremist. But is this a fair assessment?
Biden’s first major test as Chairperson came in June 1987, when President Reagan nominated Robert Bork, then sitting on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to replace the retiring Justice Lewis Powell. Within the hour, Senator Edward Kennedy had taken the floor of the Senate to share his infamous vision of “Robert Bork’s America.” Biden’s Judiciary Committee kept the pace, asking tough questions about privacy and the separation of powers. Bork’s candid testimony before the Committee earned him a reputation as an extremist, and the ACLU bolstered this idea by recommending for only the third time in its 67-year history that a Supreme Court nominee by rejected. The Judiciary Committee concurred, and recommended by a vote of 9-5 (Biden in the majority) that Bork be rejected. Shortly thereafter, Bork’s nomination failed by a floor vote of 42-58, with Biden voting nay.
Bork, who felt slighted by the media and by the Senate, resigned the Fifth Seat on the DC Circuit in 1988; Ronald Reagan soon nominated a veteran of his administration, Clarence Thomas, to fill this vacancy. In the summer of 1991, Biden would face his second test as Judiciary Chair when Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court. The hearings [Biden-laden transcripts here] were notably divisive, colored by Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual misconduct. Like the American Bar Association, the Judiciary Committee was divided on Thomas’ qualifications; and, like the ABA, the Committee ultimately chose not to make a recommendation and silently sent the nomination to the full floor. Thomas was then confirmed by a vote of 52-48, with Biden again voting nay.
Beyond his Constitutional role in providing advice and consent , Biden used his position on the committee to push through quite a bit of legislation. Some of these bills have been legally dubious. (The Violence Against Women Act of 1994, for example, was ruled in part unconstitutional in United States v. Morrison 529 U.S. 598 (2000).) However, most of his legislation in this committee an elsewhere has been marked by an earnest desire to improve the lives of everyday Americans.
I would suggest that Joe Biden is one of the finer legal minds in this country, and certainly was the finest on Obama’s shortlist (although Tim Kaine did teach law at the University of Richmond for some six years). And so I guess my point is that, if elected, Biden would be an interesting asset to President Obama if he’s tasked with filling vacancies on the high court. Considering the likelihood that Obama could have as many as six nominations, maybe even liberals should be reading a little more closely into Biden’s record.