The Pitfalls of Politics

President Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, has indicated he would like to tap a politician for the Supreme Court—someone like the iconic and influential Chief Justice Earl Warren, the former governor of California.

But there are two big problems with picking politicians for the high court. For one thing, a life lived in the public sphere can make an extroverted political type highly reluctant to step into the cloistered judicial monastery. Where are the cameras? Where are the initiatives? Where are the press conferences?

All that, gone. Instead, it’s just poring over law books in hushed chambers, relying on your ability to make intellectually rigorous arguments instead of emotional appeals, toiling around in relative obscurity for the rest of your life, except for those exciting outings to the opera.

Then there’s the second issue. If you’re President, you’re tapping a nominee who’s spent a career in the rough and tumble world of politics—which means your nominee has made political calculations that, while perhaps acceptable in the political sphere, could look a whole lot different when scrutinized under a Supreme Court microscope.

That’s why Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has a tough row to hoe if she’s going to be Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee (setting aside the fact that she, like Mario Cuomo, may not even want the job).

Reports that Granholm was en route to Washington today set off a flurry of speculation that she could be meeting with the President about a possible Supreme Court nomination. Some reports have placed her on Obama’s short list: She’s a dynamic and talented politician with strong academic credentials—she graduated with honors from Harvard Law, clerked on the Cincinnati-based federal appeals court and had been a federal prosecutor before she went into politics.

Hours later, we learned Granholm was in DC for a big announcement Tuesday on auto emissions standards. No word on whether she also would meet with Obama about the Court. But all this it seems like a big head fake—because a Granholm nomination would be like manna from heaven for Republicans searching for something, anything, to make this nomination fight spectacular.

Hers would be that.

I’m not talking about the fact that she was on the Dating Game or was born in Canada or had a tax lien on her house because she didn’t file unemployment insurance reports on her nanny or had another tax lien on her inaugural committee for nearly $20,000 in unpaid taxes.

I’m not talking about that she’s really unpopular in her home state right now and probably couldn’t even get reelected as governor.  Or that House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers told a gathering of progressive activists over the weekend that he had withdrawn his support for her, after initially recommending her for the post.

I’m talking about her early years in politics, and specifically as Wayne County corporation counsel from 1994-1998, when she was a protégé of Democratic powerbroker and Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, as he oversaw a massive renovation of the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Just read this 2002 summary from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a bipartisan think tank. There’s Granholm—in the middle of a story about corruption charges and bidding irregularities and FBI investigations and grand jury investigations.

And there’s this:  “So many reports resulted in a chorus of calls for an investigation—calls refused by state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm,” the summary says.

And this: “Then-U.S. Rep. David Bonior called for an independent investigation of airport contracting practices, and for Granholm to remove herself from investigation because she was corporation counsel for Wayne county when the questionable parking lot deals were made.”

Bonior ran against her in for governor in the Democratic primary. At the time, his spokesman called her a “rubber-stamper” and said: “She did nothing to stop the cronyism, nepotism, influence peddling and irregular contracting that has been widely reported in the Detroit media.” Granholm defended herself in a 2002 interview with the Metro Times, saying she revamped the entire process in 1997 and 1998, when she learned about the problems. She said in the interview that she didn’t order an investigation because there was no evidence of misconduct.

Again, it’s the rough and tumble world of politics. She weathered that political storm and ultimately went on to become the state’s top elected official (though, as I said, not a particularly popular one at this point).

But under today’s super-magnified lens of the Supreme Court confirmation process, it’s all an awful lot to explain away. Nominating a politician today isn’t like nominating a politician 50 years ago.

Now, there’s 24-hour cable, the Internet and all the third-party groups digging around. And in today’s environment, you really don’t want your nominee’s name tossed about with phrases like “FBI investigations” or “tax liens” or “lucrative contracts” or “contracting problems.”

Unless, of course, you are a Republican, and you’re opposing the nominee. Sen. Jeff Sessions told me this afternoon that those kind of issues could delay the entire confirmation process—and send the wrong message.

“Clearly, complications in a nominee’s background require additional time,” said Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who has said he thinks judicial experience is an important qualification.

Sessions said controversies that get a pass in the political world just may not cut it in the judicial confirmation arena.

“People expect less nitty-gritty political calculations from judges than they do from politicians,” he said. “A Supreme Court nominee is expected to conduct himself a little differently than a back-slapping politician. It would be a factor—to me and, I think, to most people.”

And that’s why this just doesn’t seem like the narrative this White House wants. Why would they make it so much fun for Jeff Sessions?

This first Supreme Court pick for the new President has to be a home run--with impeccable credentials and experience and a squeaky clean record. And under the bright lights of a Supreme Court confirmation, politics--even if they’re not dirty--don’t always look squeaky clean.

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