Man Of The Hour
John G. Roberts confounds liberals and reassures conservatives. Wanna fight?
It was the coming cataclysm--a political death match over President Bush's first nomination to the Supreme Court and the next chapter in the nation's overheated culture wars. On one side, conservatives massed to avenge an 18-year-old grudge over Robert Bork's failed nomination and rein in a court that, in their eyes, has usurped the role of Congress in making law. On the other side, liberals expecting a right-wing nominee threatened a political Armageddon with one of their last remaining powers: the Senate filibuster.
But then, poof, less than 24 hours after the president named Judge John G. Roberts, a respected Washington insider, the anticipated high-stakes brawl wilted like an Ohio tourist in Washington's searing summer heat.
The fight, it seemed, was over before it began.
Though abortion-rights groups came out swinging, the mood on Capitol Hill, where Roberts made courtesy visits in the days following his nomination, was downright agreeable. Even liberal lions like Ted Kennedy, whose devastating attack on Bork minutes after he was nominated set the course for his rejection, announced on the Senate floor that he would not "prejudge" Roberts, adding: "I will not decide whether to support or oppose him based on any single issue."
By week's end, Senate Democrats admitted they'd be hard pressed to filibuster Roberts's nomination. Conservative groups canceled teleconference strategy sessions, saying they were unnecessary. Even liberal activists reluctantly acknowledged the deftness of Bush's choice: a brilliant, low-key 50-year-old lawyer with solid conservative credentials, an independent streak, and, perhaps most important, a negligible paper trail from two short years on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. "If there's nothing new out there," said a Democratic strategist, "he's going to get confirmed."
"Nuclear option" unlikely. Born in Buffalo and raised in Indiana, Roberts, the son of a steel plant manager, seems far less a lightning rod for the left than other judges on the president's short list. "We're seemingly off to a smooth start," says Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat. Though much could change prior to his expected confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September, the Harvard-educated lawyer and married father of two adopted children is clearly on course to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "He looks very good going into this process," says Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat and one of the "Gang of 14" senators who brokered a deal in late May to avoid the "nuclear option" that would have ended the right to filibuster judicial nominees. Roberts, who has argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court, is already benefiting from that deal, which calmed emotions on Capitol Hill, since some of the Gang have decreed that his nomination does not constitute an "extraordinary circumstance" that would put a Democratic filibuster back on the table.
Though Roberts has given the opposition little to shoot at, his record shows him to be a solid conservative. He clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist and has served in two previous Republican administrations. There is little doubt that in replacing O'Connor, a centrist who was often the key swing vote in high-profile cases, he would push the court firmly to the right. So Democrats say that, nice a guy as he is, Roberts can look forward to some aggressive questioning during the hearings. "People are looking forward to getting into his record and having a robust nomination process," says Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor. "Nonetheless, people are impressed by him so far."