With friends like Bill . . .

Anna Quindlen

June 17, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

WHEN I found myself wondering whether Ruth Bader Ginsburg had paid taxes for her household help and whom she'd hired to care for her two children, now grown, I knew something had gone awry with the search for public servants in the Clinton administration.

On my desk were encomiums galore, sent to the president in support of Judge Ginsburg from lawyers and scholars, rabbis and deans.

Michael Sovern, until recently the president of Columbia University, wrote, "She would, put simply, make the court as an institution look good." Janet Benshoof, the president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, called her "a distinguished jurist whose deep commitment to justice and exceptional treatment of the law is inspiring."

And the constitutional scholar Gerald Gunther, a professor at Stanford, admitted: "I have never before written to the president to urge the selection of a particular nominee for the Supreme Court."

Judge Ginsburg -- "superb analytical ability, capacity for leadership" -- became his exception.

And she has also become the exception to the prevailing culture in the Clinton administration. The president made a fine choice in Judge Ginsburg, the mother of all sex discrimination litigators, a founder of the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

But her worthy elevation came at the end of another go-round of the Bill Bollix: Consider capable people, make their candidacy known, hang them out to dry in the court of public opinion and finally, if necessary, dump them.

This is a pattern that has become progressively worse in the months since Zoe Baird had a problem adjudged harmless, then troubling, finally catastrophic. One of the greatest fears about Mr. Clinton during the campaign was that he was too slick, too political. It has come to this -- that some of us wish he would rise to slickness.

Appeals Court Judge Stephen G. Breyer, hospitalized recently after a bicycling accident, may be forgiven if he feels as if he had also been hit by a selection process.

After meeting with Mr. Clinton on Friday, Judge Breyer was said by White House aides, who leak more than a newborn baby, to have the vacancy wrapped up.

But Judge Breyer had a problem. He had not paid taxes for a

woman who cleaned his house. The word is that he and the president did not hit it off. But some senators suggested that after Ms. Baird's withdrawal, and after Judge Kimba Wood had also been dumped for fear that her quite different child care situation might be confused with Ms. Baird's, overlooking Judge Breyer's transgression would be seen as a double standard.

Never mind double standard. This is a stupid standard. It is stupid to nitpick nominees and ignore the full measure of their accomplishments and world view. This almost happened with Judge Ginsburg, a former law professor who tirelessly litigated the cases that brought women into the 20th century during the 1970s.

In March the judge delivered a speech in which she argued that because of its sweep, Roe vs. Wade had contributed to the divisive nature of abortion politics and cut off state legislative reforms.

The leaders of several women's groups said privately they found this troubling, which, in Bollix terms, translates into trouble.

I disagree with the conclusions in the judge's speech. I think there are fundamental rights and concerns that must be addressed by sweeping judicial decisions, not piecemeal state legislation, and that bodily integrity is one. But it would be foolish for me therefore to ignore a career that has been devoted to the highest levels of scholarship, legal thought and advocacy for women. I cannot disagree with her essential worth, wisdom or fitness for this position.

The choice: first-rate. The process: deplorable. The public vetting, and the leaks, and the tendency of this administration to abandon people at the first sign of trouble must all stop.

Judge Ginsburg's selection should be a model -- chosen on merit and not ideology, despite some naysaying, with little advance publicity.

Her treatment could begin to overturn a terrible precedent: that is, that the most terrifying sentence among the accomplished in America has become, "Honey -- the White House is on the phone."

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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