There's been so much talk of "balls and strikes" at today's Senate hearing that one could be forgiven for imagining that Sonia Sotomayor is auditioning to lead an umpiring crew for Major League Baseball, and not to join the Supreme Court. At his 2005 confirmation hearings, current chief justice John Roberts also talked a lot about "balls and strikes." What gives? And who's responsible for the annoying judges-as-umpires meme? The answer, I believe, is Karl Rove. As I learned while reporting this piece on Rove's history of dirty tricks, one way that Rove flipped the Alabama Supreme Court from being mostly Democratic to mostly Republican (in Alabama judges are elected) is by propagating the notion that judges ought to be like umpires--i.e., limited to rendering impartial (non-empathetic?) judgment. When Rove showed up in Alabama in the early 1990s, the trial bar dominated the political landscape. His pleasingly simple and easy to grasp "umpires" formulation resonated deeply, and in short order Republicans came to dominate. In fact, they still do. (Sadly for Karl, it's probably the nearest he'll ever get to his "permanent majority.")
There was a time before the GOP collapsed, when people automatically assumed Rove was behind everything. Today, he can't get credit for anything. So in the spirit of calling 'em like I see 'em, let's pause to acknowledge Rove's achievement. It's so great that the Democrats have stolen it!