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Published: Wednesday, 4/14/2010

After Stevens

BACK when comity and compromise were understood to best serve the national interest, the U.S. Senate respected the now quaint notion that a president was entitled to deference in his nominations, including to the Supreme Court.

That was not understood as a rubber stamp for a president's every nominee, but it was expected that each would receive a fair hearing and, if qualified and not extreme, the senators would defer to the president's choice. But that hasn't happened since 2005, when Chief Justice Roberts was confirmed 78-22 with half the chamber's Democrats supporting President George W. Bush's nominee.

Now that Associate Justice John Paul Stevens has announced his retirement at the end of this term, it would be nice to think that his successor could be treated with such old-fashioned correctness. Sadly, there seems no hope. While both parties have frayed the idea of respect for presidential nominees over the years, the Republicans lately have raised obstruction to an art form.

From the moment she became a candidate, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was demonized as a dangerous radical when clearly she was not. In the end, she was confirmed largely along party lines, 68-31, although she did receive nine of the possible 40 Republican votes.

No matter who it is, Justice Stevens' successor can expect less. We hope we are wrong, but the Republicans now seem completely invested in the idea that the President must be opposed in all things. His new nominee could be the most accomplished judge in the nation, the least ideological, and he or she will be presumptively greeted as an "activist judge" - and never mind that the Roberts court is now stacked with right-wing activists.

This should be dismaying for the nation, but for President Obama it ought to be liberating. If there is no pleasing the Republicans, he should not try. He should merely pick someone who can fill the very large shoes of Justice Stevens, who in his 90th year retires with a stellar reputation for decency, fair-mindedness, and legal scholarship.

Better than any recent conservative justice, Justice Stevens knew that he was not engaged in a barren intellectual exercise but in rendering justice, particularly to ordinary people with no other redress. First nominated in 1975 by President Gerald Ford, he came over the years to be an eloquent member of the liberal bloc.

A lion should be replaced by a lion, and the howling of the political jackals should not deter the President in picking whom he wants without inhibition.

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