Column: Discordant notes among the Supreme Court justices

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor must enjoy her job a lot to have stayed on until she is 75. And Justices Stevens (85) and Rehnquist (80) must be fond of theirs, too. The rest of us who do not dwell in marble halls or enjoy supremacy of any kind tend to consider retirement around the age of 60 and start to make plans and announce them to others. We do this lest others begin to drop hints the size of bricks that it is time we take the Long Walk across the ice floes.

But the folks on the high court have a lifetime deal, sort of like the Grand Mufti of Uzbekistan, or the Duke of Earl, and nobody can tell a justice when it’s time to put on her coat and go home. This has been a problem in the case of some justices, judging from memoirs. When Chief Justice Burger finally pulled the pin, there seems to have been great relief among the other eight. He was cranky and grumpy and starting to forget where the door was.

Of course Justice O’Connor may have stuck with the job out of a large sense of honor and duty.

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She has been called a moderate, a word that makes conservatives reach for their guns, and perhaps when she thought about the bullet-headed automatons that President Bush might replace her with she decided to soldier on. Until last week, when she said, “To hell with it,” and sent her note to the White House.

The beauty part of the job, one has to assume, is power. Sheer lovely power. The Supremes sit on a high dais in the magnificent Cass Gilbert chambers and peer down at the competing lawyers in each case like deities at the gates of paradise, or like the Nine Grand Masters of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Woodmen of Omaha, Neb., hearing candidates for apprenticeship. And then the worthies retire to an inner chamber where they, in majestic isolation, hash out a decision from which there is no appeal. Heads roll, empires tremble, acts of Congress are disposed of like wet Kleenex, and nobody can lift a finger against them. This is wonderful.

And that is why the Brethren of the Foursquare Gospel of Christ the Republican are intending to spend upwards of $18 million to win confirmation of the president’s anointed nominee, and, one assumes, their pagan Visigoth foes will spend almost as much in opposition.

This was not always the case, children. There was a time when nominees posed for a photo with the Pres, sat for an afternoon of genteel questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, were confirmed handily and fitted for their robes and given a key to the Supreme restroom, without any mass mailings or newspaper ads. Just as the pope selects cardinals without Catholics massing in St. Peter’s Square and waving placards, so the president once chose justices.

Knowing this president as we now do, the man who proposed John Bolton as ambassador to the U.N., one assumes he is considering nominating the Rev. James Dobson. Nothing in the Constitution stipulates that a justice must have any legal training &045; they have clerks to take care of that stuff. One imagines the president on his knees in the Rectangular Bedroom, asking for the Lord’s guidance in the matter, and the Lord guiding him toward the Rev. James Dobson.

The president protests: “But Lord &045; he is a bully. His mind is rusted shut. He would institute a state religion in America and that would be the end of the Christian faith as we know it. Laura loathes the sight of him. He reeks of cheap cologne.” The Lord insists that nobody but Dobson will do. “But Lord, this is going to be an ugly uphill fight in the Senate. I have only 45 or 48 senators

who are fully programmed. The others exercise their own judgment and are unreliable.”

“OK,” says the Lord. “Do as you will. But don’t forget what I accomplished with that pretzel. You’re the Leader of the Free World, but I can bring you to your knees with a mere snack food.”

One does not envy the president in this situation. The Lord’s Will is clear and He is commanding that a nutball be seated on the bench, but Mr. Bush went to Yale and inhaled the notion of serving the public good. Why couldn’t the Lord have anointed somebody with a law degree? We don’t know.

All we know is that if James Dobson is not the next justice of the Supreme Court, this nation will face an infestation of frogs such as you wouldn’t believe. And after that, the plague of darkness.

And after that, daytime television.

(Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)