WASHINGTON — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, often mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee now that George W. Bush is president, says confirming justices has become so nasty it may scare away the best people.

He says it also encourages those who someday want to be on the court to avoid controversy and avoid taking clear stands. But Hatch then took one such stand anyway: He said the current court is mischaracterized as "conservative" and is actually centrist.

That came during a speech Hatch, R-Utah, gave Monday to Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"If nominees are going to be publicly and unfairly trashed, how do we expect to get the best people to serve in government?" Hatch asked.

"If, as part of the process, unaccountable special interests are allowed to brutalize the reputations of fine individuals and their families, it will not be long before some of the best candidates will opt out of consideration altogether," he said.

Hatch said recent fights over the nomination of Attorney General John Ashcroft reminded America how tough confirmations can be.

"Groups opposing Mr. Ashcroft would use any means to reach their desired end of defeating his confirmation, and . . . they weren't going to let the facts get in their way," Hatch said.

"I could hardly believe the misleading picture of John Ashcroft that was painted. . . . Perhaps trying to keep narrow interest groups from influencing the debate with unfair attacks is like trying to teach lions to be vegetarians," Hatch said.

He added that he worries that politicization of confirmations has led to scrutiny of every statement and writing by a nominees to measure his or her political correctness — which he said has "a chilling effect on the scholarship and open dialogue that we value."

He said, "The most palatable nominees will be blank slates rather than individuals who have memorialized their view about the proper role of the court. . . . Lower court judges who aspire to become Supreme Court nominees might be tempted to avoid any controversy in the cases they resolve and issue nothing more than plain vanilla opinions."

While Hatch himself is often listed as a potential nominee, he showed he is not afraid to venture into the controversy by saying media characterizations of the current court as "conservative" are wrong. He said it often sides with liberals.

"I believe that the court remains decidedly centrist," he said.

He listed several decisions from last year where the court ruled contrary to what conservatives would hope.

"This is a court that reaffirmed the Miranda decision (saying people arrested must in all circumstances be warned of their rights), struck down the Nebraska law banning partial-birth abortions and reaffirmed the central holding of Roe v. Wade (which allowed abortion on demand)," Hatch said.

"These are hardly 'conservative' decisions, nor are they activist. Rather, they maintain the current status of the law," he said. He said it shows the court is "not a consistently conservative one but rather (one) comprised of shifting and sometimes unpredictable coalitions."

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