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Surprise! Lauer to Biden: Isn't Job of Justice Only to Interpret Constitution?

In what may be a sign of the media's confidence that Elena Kagan will be easily confirmed to the Supreme Court, NBC's Matt Lauer, on Tuesday's Today show, didn't feel the need to sell Kagan to viewers and actually asked somewhat tough questions to Vice President Joe Biden. Lauer even hit Biden from the right when he asked the following: "When we say maybe does she or does she not understand the plight of ordinary people, is that even important? Isn't the job of a Supreme Court justice to understand the Constitution only and interpret it?"

However Lauer returned to liberal form, when questions turned to the oil spill in the Gulf when he pressed: "Given the fact we're facing an environmental and economic disaster here Mr. Vice President, are the President's plans to expand offshore drilling dead in the water?...Are people gonna have an appetite for more drilling after all this?

The following is the full interview with Biden as it was aired on the May 11 Today show:

MATT LAUER: Vice President Joe Biden took part in the decision to nominate Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. He also worked with her, when he was on the Senate Judiciary committee. Mr. Vice President, good to see you.

JOE BIDEN: Good to see you Matt.

LAUER: Let me start with something John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, a Republican said about this nomination: "She is a surprising choice from a president who's emphasized the importance of understanding how the world works and how ordinary people live. Miss Kagan has spent her entire professional career in Harvard Square, Hyde Park and the D.C. Beltway. These are not places where one learns how ordinary people live." What's your response to that?

BIDEN: My response is she comes from a very ordinary family. Her mother and father were children of immigrants, mother a schoolteacher, father a lawyer, a tenant lawyer. Two brothers who are schoolteachers. She does not come from privilege. She's worked like the devil. She was a tenured professor at Chicago, dean of Harvard Law School, and I find it kind of fascinating. On the other hand, Republicans are arguing she's, hasn't been on the bench, just like I might add Rehnquist wasn't on the bench and Powell wasn't on the bench and Justice Jackson wasn't on the bench and Justice Marshall, et cetera, et cetera.

LAUER: Right.

BIDEN: So I'm not quite sure what, what the deal is here? But this is an incredibly qualified woman who will be a brilliant Supreme Court justice.

LAUER: Let me ask you this, Mr. Vice President. If she is confirmed, here's how the current bench will look. Five of the current justices will be graduates of Harvard Law School. Three will be graduates of Yale Law School, another will have gone to Yale Law School but graduated from Columbia. I have nothing against those fine institutions. I want smart people on the Supreme Court, but doesn't it sound a little elitist to you?

BIDEN: Well I graduated from Syracuse University. Even though my son went to Yale Law School, yeah, it does. But I point out that the last two justices, Chief Justice Roberts was a Harvard undergraduate, Harvard Law, your point is well made. And, but it so happens that this is a woman who we think is ready, willing, able, the right age. She's already the tenth justice as they refer to the solicitor general, and we think she's gonna be very good.

LAUER: Right. Let me turn this argument on its end. When we say maybe does she or does she not understand the plight of ordinary people, is that even important? Isn't the job of a Supreme Court justice to understand the Constitution only and interpret it?

BIDEN: Well, I think it's both. You could, the first requirement is to understand the Constitution and be faithful to its interpretation. The question then becomes does she understand how, look, the first case that she took as solicitor general was a case that was likely not to win in this court. It was the case relating to the financing of our elections, which the Court ruled in the case that corporations could give unlimited money and labor unions, et cetera. She understood. She took that on because she realized that as a practical matter, how that would impact on the political process. She understands practically how things work. She worked in the Justice Department, she advised presidents-

LAUER: Right.

BIDEN: She understands how the impact of legislation and the interpretation of that legislation impacts on ordinary people. That's, that's, that's, that's been one of the great assets of conservative and liberal justices in the past.

LAUER: Let me, let me read you something from the New York Times editorial this morning. It says, "One of, in one of Miss Kagan's few forcefully stated positions, she wrote in 1995 that she detests polite and restrained confirmation hearings calling them 'a vapid and hollow charade' and urging senators to fully explore a court nominee's substantive views." Careful what you wish for. Is that what the White House wants? Do, do you want an in-depth discussion of this nominee's views on things like Roe v. Wade and presidential power?

BIDEN: Oh we, we have no problem with that. Look here's the, there is a distinction, Matt. You and I have talked about this before when I was chairman of the Judiciary committee. And that is, it isn't appropriate, it's inappropriate to ask a judge how they'll rule in a specific case. It's not inappropriate to ask a judge how they approach the law, what the methodology they use is. And I think that the, I think the public most important and the senators specifically will be satisfied with her explanation of how she approaches the law and she how approaches the Constitution.

LAUER: Okay a couple of quick things before I let you go. Interestingly enough, one of the senators who voted against Elena Kagan during her confirmation for solicitor general was Arlen Specter, then a Republican, now a Democrat.

BIDEN: Yep.

LAUER: He's facing a very, very difficult political fight next week in a Democratic primary in that state. Will President Obama go out and campaign for Arlen Specter?

BIDEN: Well, he already has gone out and campaigned for Arlen Specter. I'm going up for Arlen Specter. I'm doing some things for him today, as well as if needed, Friday and possibly Monday. And the President, I'm sure, will be reaching out. Whether the President's physically gonna go up there between, again now, between now and Tuesday, I don't know the answer to that, Matt. I don't know the schedule.

LAUER: Alright. And finally this oil spill in the Gulf. BP tried Plan A, it did not work. They are, they are crossing their fingers if they can find some kind of Plan B. Given the fact we're facing an environmental and economic disaster here Mr. Vice President, are the President's plans to expand offshore drilling dead in the water? No pun intended.

BIDEN: Well, they are clearly on hold as it relates to the safety requirements of the existing rigs and future rigs. What the President has done, Matt, is he's called, he's called Secretary Chu, a Nobel Laureate, the Secretary of Energy in, to gather up the best minds in the country and the world beyond BP to determine whether there is any alternatives BP has not looked to in order to be able to determine how to contain this, this, this spill.

LAUER: But in your gut, given all the coverage of what's happened down in the Gulf, in the gut, are people gonna have an appetite for more drilling after all this?

BIDEN: I don't think they're gonna have an appetite for more drilling without more, without more and certain safeguards. And there's questions we'll be looking at as to whether or not there is sufficient safeguards in the existing wells that have already been drilled.

LAUER: Vice President Joe Biden, we always appreciate your time, sir, thank you so much.

BIDEN: Always a pleasure to be with you, Matt, thank you.

LAUER: Okay.

-Geoffrey Dickens is the Senior News Analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here