Firebrand Sarbanes stands on principle

October 30, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

THERE WERE more than 1,000 people in the room at the time, but sometimes I think I must be the only person who ever saw Paul Sarbanes get emotional. This was nearly 20 years ago, down at the dimly lighted steelworkers hall on Dundalk Avenue, and it was one of those hot, ridiculously humid summer nights in Baltimore, and Sarbanes was screaming evangelistically and sweating through a blue oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He was screaming populist rhetoric into a microphone - I think he might have been campaigning for Walter Mondale at the time - and, while I can't recall the Maryland senator's exact words, I remember their result - football-stadium-sized cheers from the last of the old-line, union-solid, blue-collar Baltimore Democrats who hadn't voted for Reagan.

And I've seen such displays since then.

So don't tell me the man is incapable of emotion. Spare me your adjectives: dry, laconic and boring.

Granted, we're talking about Paul Sarbanes, not Carrot Top.

Away from a campaign, his tendency is toward the cerebral and deliberative. Banking policy, the Federal Reserve, the former Soviet Union, corporate accountability - that's what floats his boat, and what's wrong with that?

I agree: He's not Ah-nuld. And you're not going to see him playing the saxophone with the Max Weinberg 7. And some call him "the stealth senator" because they don't see him on TV every other night, dishing sound bites that rhyme. Some of the grouchy conservatives around him like to dismiss him as an aloof liberal, and they don't even know why anymore, if they ever did.

So Tuesday, when Sarbanes did what he has done many times in his political career - stand firmly on principle and speak confidently against something he finds unwise or outrageous - he got national attention for being ... emotional!

In reporting on Sarbanes' appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee to protest a judicial nomination, National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg said the "soft-spoken" and "monotone" Sarbanes was "steely-eyed."

Yeah, right. Steely-eyed.

A report in The New York Times said: "Sarbanes ... was so animated in his remarks that senate staff members said they were astonished and had never seen him so emotional."

Astonished? That's a stretch, from what I heard.

What I heard, in a tape recording of Sarbanes' remarks, was what people who know better call classic Sarbanes - a strongly worded, informed and principled argument - in this case against a Bush administration nominee for the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

For months, Sarbanes and his Senate partner, Barbara Mikulski, have been protesting White House efforts to fill a Maryland vacancy on the important appeals court with, in the first instance, a 38-year-old Washington lawyer who wasn't a member of the Maryland bar and, in the second and present instance, Claude Allen, a Republican from Virginia with limited experience as an attorney and a stint as an aide to Jesse Helms on his resume. Allen is not a judge. He's a deputy secretary of a federal agency.

In Sarbanes' view, that's not good enough.

"The year I finished law school," Sarbanes' soliloquy began, "I clerked in the 4th Circuit for Judge Morris Soper. ... He was one of the most distinguished and respected judges in the federal court system and he had a profound effect upon me. ...

"I want the committee to understand," Sarbanes' voice started to rise, "that I come today with very deeply felt feelings about the importance of the federal bench and about our responsibilities as members of the U.S. Senate, with our advise-and-consent constitutional obligation to carry out that responsibility in a way that will sustain and enhance the integrity of the federal bench."

Now Sarbanes listed judges from Maryland who had served in the 4th Circuit, one step below the Supreme Court. He mentioned the late Simon Sobeloff and Frank Murnaghan, whose death in 2000 created the vacancy the Bush administration wants Allen to fill.

"Again and again," Sarbanes said, "Maryland has sent to the 4th Circuit people of outstanding merit and outstanding quality."

Until Murnaghan's death, Marylanders held three of the court's 15 seats.

"The administration is seeking to shift a seat that should be a Maryland seat to another state, plain and simple. Maryland has 20 percent of the population of this circuit. There are 15 authorized judges. Twenty percent of 15 is three, right on the mark. ...

"Obviously, we feel very keenly that Maryland should continue to have three seats on the 4th Circuit."

To neutralize any charge of a political or ideological agenda, Sarbanes pointed out that he and Mikulski, Democrats, had supported all three Bush administration nominees for the federal District Court in Maryland.

Again he pointed to the list of Marylanders who had served on the 4th Circuit.

"These names we put before you and what they've done clearly demonstrate that we have succeeded time after time in drawing to the federal bench men and women of stature, men and women of seasoned experience, men and women who have handled important positions in public life.

"We want to maintain that standard and that tradition."

He urged the committee to strike down the Allen nomination.

"We intend - I certainly intend - to oppose this effort with all the strength I can muster."

Emotional? Sounds more like a 70-year-old senator standing on principle. Maybe that's what astonished Senate watchers.

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