Watching the presidential campaign this year for discussions on legal topics has been a bit like watching for meteors: a lot of waiting, and fleeting when it happens. Both Republicans and Democrats focused on conveying their message about the economy during the national political conventions, with only brief mentions of the Supreme Court and Department of Justice initiatives.
Tonight's prime time vice-presidential debate between GOP Representative Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Vice President Joe Biden could be different. Here are four reasons why:
1. Biden could tap into his deep background with legal issues. As a Senator, Biden, an attorney, spent 16 years as the top-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, including eight years as the committee's chairman. He presided over two of the most contentious Supreme Court nomination hearings: the confirmation of Clarence Thomas and the unsuccessful bid of Robert Bork, who is now a co-chair of Republican candidate Mitt Romney's Justice Advisory Committee.
2. Ryan's debate preparer is Washington litigator Ted Olson. The Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner has been playing the role of Biden in mock debates on the campaign trail, and has brought his 47 years of Washington legal experience with him. Ryan told CNN that Olson, the solicitor general during George W. Bush’s first term, has "immersed himself into being Joe Biden." Ryan also told CNN that: "He (Olson) knows my record, he's studied it, he's studied what we do in Congress, arguments that the president and vice president use to try to win their debates by default."
3. The moderator has asked for suggested questions. ABC News senior foreign affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz solicited questions on Twitter on September 17, and that could open it up to legal issues that voters care about. Raddatz told The Huffington Post that there was not a lot of response, but the Alliance For Justice took the opening and pressed moderators to ask about the kinds of attorneys they would nominate to the Supreme Court. "Of course candidates have stock answers for any question about the Supreme Court," AFJ President Nan Aron wrote in an October 1 letter to Raddatz and other moderators. "We hope you will press them to go beyond the usual boilerplate."
4. The debate format is wide open, and Biden has a reputation for going off script. When Biden made an off-the-cuff remark on "Meet The Press" in May about being "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage, he apologized to President Barack Obama and the White House clarified that it was not an official change in policy. But three days later, Obama appeared on ABC to state he too believed that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. By the time the Democratic National Convention finished in September, gay marriage was an official part of the Democrat platform. The debate will cover both foreign and domestic topics and be divided into nine time segments of approximately 10 minutes each. A similar format in the first debate between Obama and Romney produced a surprisingly detailed discussion of the implementation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.