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The tiny fraction of memos that have been released reveal a cynical, no-holds-barred manipulation of the process by leftist groups...

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Democrat Memogate: The Beginning of Political Scandal

As political scandals go, the case of the U.S. Senate Democrat memos is difficult to assess thoroughly, for the moment. The evidence is currently under lock and key by the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms. That evidence consists of some three to four thousand memos from or to Democrat members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, believed to detail collusion between Democrats and leftist groups to block confirmation of many of President Bush’s judicial nominees.

The tiny fraction of memos that have been released reveal a cynical, no-holds-barred manipulation of the process by leftist groups, which have amassed gigantic war chests for their efforts. The most egregious memo exposed thus far, written by a staffer to Senator Ted Kennedy, bluntly discusses an effort to affect the outcome of a then-pending case by delaying confirmation of an appeals court judge. The memo specifically recognizes the impropriety of delay for that purpose. Another memo attacks Miguel Estrada, who subsequently withdrew his nomination. His offenses: his career has left no paper trail to be picked apart; he’s Latino, and was thought being groomed for the Supreme Court.

Unless or until the other memos, or the computer on which they repose, are put in the hands of competent, objective investigators, we cannot begin to comprehend the full extent of ethics violations or worse. Unless or until the other memos, or the computer on which they repose, are put in the hands of competent, objective investigators, we cannot be confident that they will not be destroyed or disappear. The stakes are that high.

For a political scandal to reach the tipping point, it requires sustained and/or massive media attention, resulting in significant public outrage. With the notable exceptions of Fox News, a Wall Street Journal editorial writer, an overburdened Washington Times reporter and columnist/commentator Robert Novak, almost all media attention thus far has focused on how the memos were obtained and some leaked.

When that first group of memos was made public, Democrats Ted Kennedy and Dick Durbin immediately went into full attack mode, successfully changing the subject from the content of the memos to how they were obtained. Great tactic; aggressively and loudly executed; amply supported by the Democrats’ amen corner, including the editorial pages of The New York Times and Washington Post. Self-righteous hyperbole gushed, as is typical of a Kennedy/Durbin exercise. The perfidies of Hitler and Stalin were invoked; comparisons to Watergate were made; "criminal" acts were alleged.

Against that onslaught, the Senate’s Republican leadership, most notably Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch and Majority Leader Bill Frist, crumpled like the cheap suits neither wears. Hatch, who Robert Novak has bluntly referred to as Kennedy’s "patsy" over this, pronounced himself "mortified" and authorized the Sergeant-at-Arms' investigation. Frist "accepted" the resignation of Manuel Miranda, an aide who has acknowledged reading the memos but steadfastly denies wrongdoing. Judgment on that can be made only after details of who did what, when, how and why are fully understood.

Whatever the Republican conversations behind closed doors, the content of the memos, both that which is known and that which is rumored, remains an elephant in the elephant house. Everyone knows it’s there. Those who can’t see it smell it. But no one is willing to speak of it, except Manny Miranda.

While being kicked out the door, Miranda filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee, charging that the heretofore unseen memos indicate evidence of "public corruption….This includes evidence of the direct influencing of the Senate’s advice and consent role by the promise of campaign funding and election support in the last mid-term election."

On February 12, Fox News reported it "has learned that one memo recounts how Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, now a presidential candidate, allegedly urged Leahy to delay a vote on one Bush nominee, supposedly because trial lawyers’ groups and the NAACP would, if the vote occurred, curtail campaign spending for Democratic candidates in North Carolina." (Senator Patrick Leahy was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee when Democrats controlled the Senate.)

There are currently far more questions than answers about all elements of the issue, too few people asking them, and not the right people at that. The Senate Ethics Committee, undoubtedly one of the slowest and weakest investigating and enforcement bodies in all of government, and the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms just do not rise to the level required.

The Center for Individual Freedom has joined with others to ask the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department to step in. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has called for a special prosecutor. We’re not holding our breath, but it is essential that the memos at least be protected. The obfuscation of Senate Democrats coupled with the puzzling and disheartening acquiescence of Senate Republicans may hold for a time, but if the evidence is preserved, we may eventually learn some part of the truth now so desperately hidden.

Even though, in the past year, the American people have been rocked by a number of activist judicial decisions that strike against both constitutional principle and core moral values, they have still not fully made the connection between the impact of those decisions and the ideological obstruction of judicial confirmations. Still, in a national poll released this week, Zogby International found that 53 percent of likely voters in the "blue states" (those carried by Al Gore in 2000) and 59 percent of those in "red states" (those carried by President Bush in 2000) believe the Democrat filibuster of judicial nominees is wrong.

Political corruption is far easier to understand than complex partisan maneuvering, and if the Democrat memos revealed thus far are only the tip of the iceberg, then the U.S. Senate could well start to resemble the Titanic.

Senator Kennedy, who has referred to President Bush’s judicial nominees as "Neanderthals," last week compared the exposure of the Democrat memos to Watergate. That’s cute, and the Senator obviously wants people to focus only on the Watergate break-in. But that was just the beginning. We recall hearings, televised daily, questions asked under oath of the high and mighty. We recall reporters worthy of the name chasing stories into the night.

This time there are documents — three to four thousand of them — to provide the roadmap for investigation. The next question is who has the guts to initiate that investigation.

  • To download the Democrat memos, click here (pdf).

  • To read the letter filed with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section asking for an investigation, click here.

  • To read the Center’s complaint filed with the Virginia State Bar again Elaine Jones of the NAACP, click here.

[Posted February 19, 2004]