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Leahy takes lead on Judiciary Committee


Burlington Free Press

In his new assignment as chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy will have a prominent role in Americans' lives and liberty.

This small state has produced some impressive voices on major issues that shape our history.

Sen. George Aiken was one. Leahy, who has represented Vermont in the U.S. Senate for 32 years, is another.

Taking over from Sen. Arlen Specter as chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee in January, Leahy steps into a position that will be pivotal in the issues of our time, including the Iraq war, privacy and freedom.

Leahy returns to the chairmanship, which he held briefly in 2001 to 2002, promising "an agenda of restoration, repair and renewal: Restoration of constitutional values and the rights of ordinary Americans. Repair of a broken oversight process and the return of accountability. And renewal of the public's right to know."

Most of us would agree with Leahy that the system is broken. Whether the Senate Judiciary Committee will be successful in patching it up remains to be seen, but there is no question that Leahy's words carry the kind of hopeful tone that Americans are anxious to hear. There is something reassuring about Leahy talking about stewardship and respect for the core values we cherish.

In a speech last week entitled "Ensuring liberty and security through checks and balances," Leahy painted a picture of the job ahead as a kind of lifting of rocks after six years of Bush administration policies, including warrantless wiretapping of Americans.

He said that President Bush should expect closer oversight on the war on terror and human rights issues, such as the use of torture. Privacy rights, which have eroded during the Bush years, will be "one of our highest priorities," he said. At the same time, he called for the strengthening and improvement of open government laws.

As he so often does, Leahy drew on his Vermont roots in an appreciation of the state's "rich tradition" of defending constitutional rights. In the speech at the Georgetown University Law Center, Leahy recalled "some of the most honorable senators in our history," Vermont Senators Aiken, Ralph Flanders, Robert Stafford and Jim Jeffords. "These are men who exemplified that tradition, who rose up against abuses, against infringements upon Americans' rights when doing that was not popular, but it was right," Leahy said.

Politicians in this state who honor Leahy as a champion of democracy and one of our strongest voices ought to take a lesson from his unwavering support of the public's right to know.

Leahy has a way of lifting Vermont to mythic stature. The Green Mountain State can use the boost.

Perhaps the senator's goals seem too lofty and unattainable. But why not let Democrats, like Leahy, shoot for the moon and promise reform? As the minority in Congress, Democrats have been bottled up, unable to hold hearings or pass laws on policies that have battered the nation.

Leahy, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says he will be the overseer we have been missing. Step up, senator, we applaud you.

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