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This Is Susan Collins' "Declaration of Conscience" Moment

Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Chase Smith on Face the Nation in Washington, D.C, November 11, 1956

Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Chase Smith on Face the Nation in Washington, D.C, November 11, 1956. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photograph)

This is Sen. Susan Collins’ “Declaration of Conscience” moment. She can have no better guide — or source of inspiration — than Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who described her moment to me when I was a new member of Congress in 1991, the year Anita Hill testified at the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh is elevated to the highest court in the land will be determined, in no small measure, by Collins. Positioned in the eye of what seems like a Category 10 hyperpartisan hurricane, Collins has an opportunity to make history by providing what has disappeared from the view of many Americans — principle and integrity in Washington.

The strength of our judicial system, and particularly the Supreme Court, rests on Americans’ faith that its members can be trusted to weigh impartially the evidence of a case and make a judgment based on the law. Judicial temperament matters.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that riveted the nation raised alarm bells for many. Kavanaugh’s struggles to answer questions candidly and honestly, his belligerence when responding to questions about the widespread reports of excessive drinking while a student, and his high-pitched dismissal of accusations of sexual assault as “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” and “revenge on behalf of the Clintons” revealed a temperament that few would describe as judicial.

Regardless of how one feels about Kavanaugh’s judicial philosophy, this is troubling. Character, integrity and temperament matter. What is at stake in the pending Senate vote is not only the fate of a Supreme Court nomination, but also the integrity of our highest court.

Smith was known for her integrity and independence, even under intense partisan pressure. I paid Smith a visit during my first term as a Maine congressman. As we sipped tea at her Maine home, I told her how much I admired her courage when she took to the Senate floor to deliver what became known as her “ Declaration of Conscience” speech. At the height of the Cold War, when fear and prejudice were being stoked for political advantage, she denounced a fellow Republican senator, Joseph McCarthy, for using tactics that she said had “debased” the Senate. It was a pivotal moment in history, one in which Smith’s legacy was forged.

This was not the only profile in courage that Smith demonstrated in the midst of intense partisan political pressure. Troubled by a Supreme Court nomination by a president of her own political party, she stood in opposition. She voted against President Richard Nixon’s nominee Clement Haynsworth despite the leadership position she held in the Senate Republican caucus and intense pressure from the White House.

She confided to me how challenging such moments were. But for her, there was little choice but to do what she believed was the right thing to do.

I fully appreciate that elections have consequences. President Donald Trump gets to nominate Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, and a Republican majority in the Senate gets to vote on whether he becomes a Supreme Court justice. But these are extraordinary and volatile times when it seems that our nation is being torn apart, and the viability of our very system of government can no longer be taken for granted.

Now, more than ever, what America needs most are elected leaders who are willing to put principle over politics despite the pressure to do otherwise, leaders like Margaret Chase Smith.

I do not know what Collins will decide when she is called upon to cast a vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. But I can’t think of a better time for the courage, character and principle that Smith demonstrated to once again shine on the Senate floor.

This is a historic moment for the nation and a legacy moment for Collins. It is precisely the time for another “Declaration of Conscience” by a senator from Maine.

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Tom Andrews

Tom Andrews

Tom Andrews, a former Member of Congress from the first Congressional District of Maine, is the President and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Tom also served as National Director of Win Without War, a coalition of forty-two national membership organizations including the National Council of Churches, the NAACP, the National Organization of Women, the Sierra Club, and MoveOn.  He is also a co-founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

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