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By SARA FRITZ
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2001
WASHINGTON -- There was a time when the job of solicitor general of the United States was thought to be beyond partisan politics.
The nonpartisan nature of the job began to crumble on the night of Oct. 20, 1973, when, in what is known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," then-Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out President Nixon's order to fire Watergate investigator Archibald Cox. That task fell to Bork because his bosses, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and deputy William Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than do Nixon's bidding.
Almost overnight, many Americans who had been unaware that the United States even had a solicitor general knew the name of Robert Bork. Bork continued to stir controversy in later years too, and thus in 1987 the Senate refused to approve his nomination to sit on the Supreme Court.
Another controversial former solicitor general is Kenneth Starr, who served at the Justice Department in the Reagan administration and later went on to conduct the investigation that led to the impeachment of President Clinton. Like Bork, Starr was viewed as a conservative ideologue.
Yet despite all the political dust that Bork and Starr have kicked up over the years, it is important to note that neither of them was ever accused of politicizing the solicitor general's role in arguing cases on behalf of the U.S. government before the Supreme Court.
Now, along comes Ted Olson, President Bush's choice for solicitor general, whose nomination is scheduled to be considered soon by the Senate, perhaps as early as this week.
Olson, you will recall, played a big role in putting Bush in the White House. He was the lead attorney who argued the disputed Florida ballot case for Bush before the U.S. Supreme Court and won.
Democrats fear Olson is going to politicize the position of solicitor general by holding the U.S. government's legal interests hostage to his own extremely conservative views. In other words, they think he will intentionally undermine or refuse to defend laws enacted by Congress that do not square with his personal political philosophy.
"I've surveyed the list of solicitors general of the United States," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., told Olson during recent hearings on his nomination, "and I can't find any parallel in history of anyone who has been so actively partisan in his legal practice and then went on to be the solicitor general."
What bothers Democrats most is that Olson is part of the same close-knit club of conservative lawyers that includes Bork and Starr. Like Starr and Bork, Olson has been accused of being part of what former first lady Hillary Clinton described as "the vast right-wing conspiracy" that allegedly was out to get President Clinton.
During Olson's confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was grilled repeatedly by Democrats who suggested his personal views might render him incapable of arguing before the Supreme Court in favor of existing laws dealing with affirmative action, abortion and women's rights, among other things.
And every time he was challenged, his answers followed the same pattern: "I believe now that when you accept a position in the Department of Justice, you put your partisan positions aside, your personal views aside and attempt to serve the department and the American people as even-handedly and as fairly and as openly as possible."
This is the same way that Attorney General John Ashcroft, during his own contentious confirmation hearings, answered similar questions. He, too, pledged to follow the law, not his personal opinions.
But the solicitor general has a much more direct influence than the attorney general over how the Supreme Court interprets U.S. laws. Indeed, the court often looks upon the solicitor general as an adviser -- what some refer to as the "10th Justice."
In Olson's favor, he is extremely well-qualified for the solicitor general's job. As a private lawyer, he is believed to have argued more cases before the Supreme Court than any other attorney alive in the United States.
His excellent credentials are likely to win Olson easy confirmation. But Democrats have put him on notice they do not trust him and they will be watching closely to make certain he upholds the laws enacted by Congress.