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Roberts warranted Schumer's scrutiny

Charles E. Schumer may have been in the minority of the Senate Judiciary Committee to oppose the confirmation of John G. Roberts Jr. for chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

But in casting a reluctant vote against the amiable and nimble jurist, Schumer was fully consistent with New York State's progressive heritage.

Today's safety net of federal pension, health and housing programs and worker rights bears a "Made in New York" label. The very existence of these programs, Schumer believes, is at stake in the Supreme Court battle.

They are the life product of three New York Democrats whose names are almost forgotten: Alfred E. Smith, Herbert Lehman and Robert F. Wagner. Their legacy is mother's milk to the Democratic Party establishment in New York City.

So revered were these three Democrats that their pictures were hung in some public schools in their day. Before the colors totally fade, here are some scraps about how this trio's achievements play into the fight over the high court.

One impetus for new state laws protecting society's most vulnerable people occurred in 1911. It was a tragedy that was as riveting as was the shame of Hurricane Katrina.

A fire in a Manhattan loft factory claimed 134 workers' lives. Their boss had locked the fire doors.

Reformist New York was outraged. Al Smith, governor in the 1920s, pushed through state laws on workers' compensation, working conditions for women and children and pensions.

A successor, Gov. Lehman, enacted unemployment insurance, the eight-hour day and buttressed health and welfare programs.

Sen. Wagner brought these reforms to the national scene in the 1930s.

Most notable were Wagner's National Labor Relations Act, which is supposed to guarantee the rights of workers to unionize, Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Elements of big business, and the dark side of the Republican Party, hate these programs because they eat into profits. Sleepy citizens have enjoyed these benefits so long they don't realize they hang on a fragile thread.

It is called the Commerce Clause of the Constitution allowing Congress to regulate interstate commerce. Past court rulings have said the clause empowers Congress to pass national laws on labor, welfare, health and housing.

Justice Clarence Thomas, whom Schumer calls the most radical member of the high court, believes Congress misused the commerce clause in passing such broad laws.

During Roberts' confirmation vote on Thursday, Schumer noted that President Bush said one of his models for court nominees is Thomas.

"I was troubled by (Roberts') answers on the Commerce Clause," Schumer said. "I asked (Roberts) if he would disagree with Justice Thomas' view that Congress may not regulate activities occurring within a state even if they have substantial effects on interstate commerce. He refused."

Roberts, Schumer said, is embraced by groups that, like Bush, want to change the nation through the courts.

If you were a Brooklyn-born Democrat as steeped in the state's progressive traditions as is Schumer, you'd have to have the IQ of a snail not to be deeply troubled about Roberts.

So Schumer elected not to guess, and voted no.


Schumer had a busy week. He found time to require the New York Power Authority to agree to meet with members of Congress on proposals to increase aid to Buffalo and Erie County in the Power Authority's relicensing of the Niagara Power Project. And the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, which Schumer chairs, announced it has twice the money on hand -- $16.7 million -- for next year's elections as the Republicans.


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