“I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. I think that it is high time that we remembered that the Constitution, as amended, speaks not only of the freedom of speech but also of trial by jury instead of trial by accusation.
“Whether it be a criminal prosecution in court or a character prosecution in the Senate, there is little practical distinction when the life of a person has been ruined.”
Those words were uttered, not by Sen. Susan Collins last week, but by her political hero, Margaret Chase Smith, in June of 1950.
Last Friday, Collins could have spoke those exact same words, but instead crafted her own declaration, standing up for cherished freedoms that desperately needed a credible, intelligent, and eloquent advocate in the US Senate.
At the moment she made her speech, absolutely no one in America seemed to care about anything besides the end result. Liberals cared only about obliterating Brett Kavanaugh, stopping his nomination, and hopefully retaking Congress in the midterm election so that they could continue to obstruct President Donald Trump’s future nominees.
Now that he is confirmed, all that matters is that Collins sided against them. They didn’t listen. They didn’t consider. She is now their enemy.
Conservatives, on the other hand, viewed the potential failure of Kavanaugh’s nomination as an existential threat to the American republic, and believed that he needed to be pushed through no matter the facts of the case, what accusations were made, or what was ultimately learned about him.
Now that he is in, all that matters is that Collins sided with them, not the content of what she said.
But in the face of all the noise, and all the passion, it was the clarity of her defense of essential American ideals amidst the threats and intimidation she and her staff had to endure that define this as a profile in courage.
“In evaluating any given claim of misconduct,” Collins said, “we will be ill served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be. We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.”
Indeed, it is resisting that temptation with a resolute determination that defines our commitment to ideals. When we abandon them out of convenience, they aren’t convictions at all.
Our laws are a byproduct of our morality as a society. Our values. The reason that the presumption of innocence is so important boils down to a simple concept: it is morally wrong to destroy another human being without evidence.
It might mean the guilty occasionally go free, or go unpunished. That is a better result than the innocent being unjustly imprisoned, or personally destroyed. This is a bedrock American principle.
So great care, even outside the criminal process, must be taken as accusations are made, and we judge them. Collins had a rational, reasonable and logical approach to the accusations made by Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were in high school.
“This is not a criminal trial,” Collins said, “and I do not believe that claims such as these need to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, fairness would dictate that the claims at least should meet a threshold of ‘more likely than not’ as our standard.”
She didn’t need to be convinced of the accusation as though she were on a jury, but it still did need to meet a basic standard of fairness.
A standard that absolutely no one with a shred of judgment could say was met, given the lack of corroboration and the outright rejection under penalty of felony by the four people Ford herself named.
The easiest thing in the world for Collins to do was give in to the pressure. During the confirmation process, her staff was physically threatened, special interest groups have buried her office in calls, she has been screamed at, protested, and harassed.
Now that the vote is over, she faces people at her home, continuing to attack her.
Most politicians in her position would have taken that easy path, and given the sign-wielding mob exactly what they wanted.
But Collins didn’t. She stood up, incredibly bravely, to the forces of irrationality, division and hate, and did more for the preservation of American values in that one day than she had done in her 22 year career prior.
Taking the stance that she took was her finest moment as a senator.
Sadly, what she did Friday is unlikely to be truly appreciated for how important it was. But her vote, and her Declaration of Courage explaining it, prove that she is perhaps the last true statesman in Washington.