Even if Sen. Arlen Specter sticks to pledges he is apparently making to every conservative Republican senator who will visit with him, there's solid reason to deny him the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it's not his slip of the tongue on the subject of abortion.
Specter — a Republican due the committee job because of seniority — had said there would be little chance of confirmation of any of President Bush's judicial nominees if they might interfere with the legal rights of women to get abortions.
Given his history on the issue, some thought he was setting up a litmus test.
He has since said he was doing no such thing and has reportedly been telling concerned senators of his party that he would do nothing as committee chairman to thwart consideration on the Senate floor of those nominated by the president.
What he cannot undo, however, is a record of opposing judges based on the possibility they might not come to the conclusions he favors. That position is very nearly the opposite of the one enunciated in the presidential debates and elsewhere by President Bush, who thinks the judicial review role of Supreme Court justices is to interpret the Constitution, not to indulge in extra-constitutional preferences.
The risk of the Specter view is that we will edge ever closer to oligarchic rule by judges and ever further away from the rule of law, and the risk of Specter as committee chairman is that his view would make itself felt in ways that could damage the prospects of some extraordinarily able nominees. It bears noting that he once helped thwart the ascension to the Supreme Court of the brilliant Robert Bork.
If Specter does now get the chairmanship, perhaps he'll be sufficiently chastened to heed important principles that have been lodged elsewhere than in his legal philosophy. But that's far from a sure bet.