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The once-and-never Justice Clinton

April 13, 2010 |  8:43 am

Has there ever been a briefer boomlet than the speculation that President Obama would name Hillary Rodham Clinton to succeed John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court? One wonders if Clinton wouldn't have liked to luxuriate in the scenario a bit before the White House announced that Obama "thinks Secretary Clinton is doing an excellent job as Secretary of State and wants her to remain in that position."

Still, Clinton is an astute enough politician to recognize a fact that eludes some who advocate for the appointment of a politician, rather than a cloistered appeals court judge, to the impending Stevens vacancy: Politicians have longer and messier paper trails than judges. In Hillary's case, the paper includes -- according to a recent book -- a draft indictment by Whitewater prosecutors. (Remember Whitewater?)

But any politician named to the court would provide critics with a mother lode of oppo research. To be elected governor or senator, you must raise money, including money from the special interests Obama has been demonizing. Governors tend to preside over large Cabinets, and the law of averages guarantees that some of those Cabinet officials will go bad big-time. Senators and members of the House cast votes that can easily be wrenched from their context.

Those who pine for the real-life perspective of a politician-turned-justice must face the fact that two hurdles stand in the way of a return to that past practice: the current partisan polarization over court appointments and the higher (if sometimes hypocritical) ethical standards against which politicians are measured, and often found wanting. Judges are a lot safer.

--Michael McGough
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