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Globe Editorial

Politics can bolster the bench

April 16, 2010

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AS PRESIDENT Obama seeks a successor to Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, he should give close consideration to women and men who have made their mark in politics and not just in an appellate court, the bullpen of most recent nominees. A former member of Congress, a state legislature, or a city council is likely to have a firm grounding in the way government decisions shape events at the street level.

Who better than a current or former elected official to fulfill Obama’s stated goal to choose someone who thinks about “how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives’’?

It is only in recent years that presidents have shown such a strong preference for appellate court nominees. Among justices in the 20th century, Charles Evans Hughes had been governor of New York; Hugo Black a senator from Alabama; Earl Warren governor of California; Potter Stewart a city councilor in Cincinnati; Sandra Day O’Connor a state senator in Arizona.

More justices with at least some political experience might have kept the court from its recent Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates of corporate and labor spending in political campaigns. Extending First Amendment free political speech rights to deep-pocketed companies and unions might have a theoretical appeal, but justices who have seen up close the workings of the legislative sausage-grinder would have better understood the harm of unleashing special-interest money.

Fairness, a familiarity with the law, a readiness to mix it up in court deliberations — these are all important qualities in a justice. But Obama is right also to look for an awareness of “daily realities.’’ To make sure he gets nominees with all of these attributes, he should cast a net wide enough to include Americans who know their way around a city hall or state house.

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