Paul Sarbanes, who died Sunday at the age of 87, served Maryland in Congress with unfailing integrity, quiet diligence and stubborn modesty. Those traits suited him perfectly in his role as a questioner and guardian of standards, whether examining the conduct of bankers or the qualifications of nominees for the federal bench.
The nation first saw him when he was about 40, during the end stages of the Watergate scandal in the summer of 1974. Sarbanes, a Democrat from Baltimore, was a freshman representative with a seat on the House Judiciary Committee at a historic moment. He introduced the first article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. Nixon resigned soon after that.
Two years later, Maryland voters sent Sarbanes to the Senate, and over the next 30 years he became associated with the most unglamorous but important issues — banking policy, the practices of the Federal Reserve, corporate accountability. He served for a time as chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; he became an expert in complex financial laws and the way banks and investors operated.
I used to hear Les Kinsolving, an eccentric conservative on Baltimore talk radio, slam Sarbanes for being too liberal and for being Maryland’s “stealth senator,” seldom heard or seen on television. I was never sure what Les wanted in a senator (besides staunch conservatism). It always seemed to me that Sarbanes was thoughtful, deliberative and serious about his work. His intellect was intimidating, especially when it came to … almost everything.
His modesty — that is, his unwillingness to blow his own horn and avoid the media floodlights — seemed innate. But Sarbanes used to say that letting someone else take credit for the passage of a bill or the reaching of compromise was a good strategy for getting things done.
Sarbanes understood better than anyone the “advice and consent” role of the Senate, the need to have 100 men and women capable of objective deliberation on international treaties and the nomination of federal officials, from members of the president’s cabinet to the justices of the Supreme Court.
The latter duty — the review of the president’s judicial nominations — was one to which Sarbanes brought special care, and his actions in that realm came frequently to mind during these last four Trump years.
With his appointments, President Donald Trump has managed to place more than 200 relatively young judges on federal courts, as well as three justices on the Supreme Court. The vast majority of appointments have been considered qualified by the American Bar Association, though clearly most of these judges are stridently conservative, a condition that many Americans to the left and center consider disqualifying (because stridency, from the left or right, subverts the ideal of judicial integrity.) At least 10 of Trump’s nominees were considered unqualified by the standards of the ABA. (One of them had never tried a case.)
I bring this up because it’s hard to imagine Paul Sarbanes in the middle of the mess that is the U.S. Senate today, with the Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, obsessed with confirming as many conservative judges as possible, even in the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century and the accompanying economic recession.
I never got to ask him about it — requests for interviews of the former senator in his retirement were politely turned down — but I wondered what Sarbanes would have said about McConnell’s refusal in early 2016 to have the Senate consider Merrick Garland, a moderate jurist nominated by President Barack Obama to fill the Supreme Court seat of Antonin Scalia. McConnell claimed Supreme Court vacancies should not be filled in a presidential election year.
I’m pretty sure Sarbanes would have been appalled at that. The Senate has changed so much since he announced his retirement in 2006, and especially since Trump’s election. The tradition of collegiality and the regard for norms — highlighted this year by the hypocritical rush of Republicans to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court just a week before the presidential election — have been smashed. Most Republican senators won’t yet acknowledge the victory of Joe Biden as president.
Imagine today’s Senate, with Trump lackey Lindsey Graham chairing the judiciary committee, listening to a man of principle like Sarbanes as he implored the committee to set and keep a high bar for judges.
“I want the committee to understand that I come today with very deeply felt feelings about the importance of the federal bench and about our responsibilities as members of the U.S. Senate, with our advise-and-consent constitutional obligation to carry out that responsibility in a way that will sustain and enhance the integrity of the federal bench.”
Sarbanes spoke those words in front of the judiciary committee in 2003. He was 70 years old at the time, protesting the nomination by President George W. Bush of a federal official to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Bush nominee was from Virginia and, Sarbanes pointed out, the vacant seat on the court was supposed to go to a Marylander. Plus, Sarbanes argued, Bush’s nominee had limited experience as an attorney, had received a poor rating from the ABA and did not live up to the standards of earlier judges who had distinguished themselves on the court.
Sarbanes won the case. (The nomination of the federal official eventually lapsed. The nominee later pleaded guilty to shoplifting in Montgomery County.)
It needs to be noted that Sarbanes had earlier supported three Bush nominees to the federal district bench in Maryland, and back in 1987, the liberal senator had voted to confirm the conservative Scalia to the Supreme Court in a famously unanimous, 98-0 vote.
That all seems old school, even quaint by now — compromise, competence, integrity, respect for norms, due diligence on behalf of the people. It’s what Paul Sarbanes brought to the Senate. The Senate needs more like him again.
Dan Rodricks is a longtime columnist for the Baltimore Sun.