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Justice Stevens will be hard act to follow

By Donna Brazile, CNN Contributor
  • Donna Brazile: Campaign finance reform will lose a hero when Justice Stevens retires
  • Brazile: Stevens slammed ruling to give corporations same free speech rights as individuals
  • GOP could risk its future by obstructing any Obama nominee, Brazile writes
  • All replacement suggestions seem solid, but filling Stevens' shoes won't be easy, she says

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee, a nationally syndicated columnist and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. She was the campaign manager for the Al Gore-Joe Lieberman ticket in 2000 and wrote "Cooking With Grease."

(CNN) -- Campaign finance reform advocates will lose a great hero when Justice John Paul Stevens retires from the Supreme Court. As the last remaining World War II veteran in such a place of eminence, he brings an invaluable perspective to the bench.

Like Justice Sonia Sotomayor, although for different reasons, Justice Stevens knows history and has a background no other justice can claim. Veterans of any war have an experience of the world that is valuable to share. John Paul Stevens will be missed, and his service cherished.

Stevens understood that the court's opinions would have ramifications for the rule of law, but also for real people. This realistic approach led him to write and join opinions restricting the application of the death penalty to youth and the mentally disabled. Stevens also wrote the dissenting opinion in Bush v. Gore (2000), a decision I know all too well having served as Vice President Al Gore's campaign manager.

As he put it at the time, "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."

I have particular respect for his 90-page dissent to the majority decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It was an appalling decision that conferred the same free speech rights to corporations that the Constitution gives to individuals. What do they teach in law school nowadays that allows someone to confuse the two?

First, the court couldn't differentiate between money and speech, and now it can't tell the difference between people and corporate entities. This is a scary progression, and like the veteran he is, Justice Stevens knew it was time to ring the alarms.

In his 20-minute rebuttal to the decision, he said "The rule announced today -- that Congress must treat corporations exactly like human speakers in the political realm -- represents a radical change in the law," and that "the only relevant thing that has changed" since previous decisions on this matter is "the composition of this court."

The Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights to protect John and Jane Doe, not John Deere and Mrs. Fields.
--Donna Brazile

He's right, and I applaud him for having the courage to say so. I may not have a JD, but I don't need one to see where this decision leads. The Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights to protect John and Jane Doe, not John Deere and Mrs. Fields.

Over the short term, Congress will have to limit the damage by passing strict disclosure rules for corporate spending, along with other fixes. Over the long term, it may well be necessary to pass a constitutional amendment giving lawmakers the right to regulate corporate spending.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, have already put amendments in the pipeline. That's how disastrous this decision is. John Paul Stevens is one of the good ones, and I'm so sad to see him go, particularly given what an important figure he is on the court. As a legal strategist and as a gentleman of the first degree, we're unlikely to ever have another justice quite like him.

So let's talk about the person we're likely to get. President Obama had to drag Congress through a mine field to get a health care bill passed. He got bumped and bruised and expended a lot of political capital. He's not looking for another fight right now. An easy confirmation would be a nice win for his administration. But a lifetime appointment is nothing to play around with.

Video: Obama ponders Supreme Court pick
Video: Obama open to court suggestions

Sotomayor and whomever he successfully appoints to fill Stevens' seat will be two of President Obama's most lasting legacies. It's no stretch to think that both of them will be on the Supreme Court another 20-30 years beyond President Obama's second term. A Supreme Court appointment is too important to squander it by using "easy confirmation" as the primary criterion.

Given the Republican obstructionist tactics employed during the health care debate, I wouldn't be surprised to see them line up in lockstep against any appointee the president nominates. If Obama is for it, they're against it. That's the way the GOP works and has worked since his election.

On the other hand, Congress as a whole is polling horribly right now. If Republicans are careful, they can win back a few seats just by riding on anti-incumbent sentiment. But if they overplay their hand, screaming their opposition to a qualified, competent nominee, they may expose themselves as the obstructionists they really are, and pay for it at the ballot box.

That's why the GOP would be smart to make a minor show of resistance, then roll over. The truth is, President Obama would never nominate someone far out of the mainstream. He has too great a respect for the law. He's a lawyer at heart.

Unlike his predecessor, he wouldn't put a cowboy on the bench even if he could. He holds the Supreme Court in far too high a regard to abuse it like that.

All the names being tossed about are solid choices -- people such as U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan and U.S. appeals court judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland. They are well-respected legal scholars, and I'm pleased to see so many women on the short list. There's not a bad apple in the bunch, so I'll be happy to watch how this progresses.

President Obama did a great job with Sotomayor, both in choosing her and getting her confirmed. I have no doubt he will show equal skill with his next choice. As to whether he can nominate a justice who can fill Justice Stevens' very large shoes, we'll have to wait a few decades to find out.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.