Man Of The Hour
John G. Roberts confounds liberals and reassures conservatives. Wanna fight?
And the American public, almost always game for some good political theater, can still expect quite a show during televised Senate hearings. Starting with Kennedy and ranking minority member Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will press Roberts to answer questions about his position on abortion and about the court briefs he wrote for the Reagan and first Bush administrations. New York's Charles Schumer, a reliable liberal flame-thrower, wants Roberts to produce documents from his stints as principal deputy solicitor general and associate White House counsel --a request the president is likely to resist vigorously. Cue the fireworks.
While Democrats insist they need more information, religious conservatives are satisfied with what they know. Despite Roberts's limited judicial record, they believe he is "strict constructionist," if not an "originalist" like Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. "I don't think there's any evidence that he's going to be another [Justice David] Souter," said James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. A little-known state-court judge from New Hampshire, Souter came to Washington with a thin record and turned out to be a bitter disappointment to the right after his nomination by President Bush's father. "We know a lot about Judge Roberts from his life, from his record, and from the things that he stood for," says Dobson. "This is a man who we could get very excited about."
Roberts's record on abortion, however, appears somewhat ambiguous. In a 1991 brief for the first Bush administration, he wrote that Roe v. Wade was "wrongly decided and should be overruled." But in his 2003 appeals court confirmation hearing, Roberts said the brief was written in his role as "an advocate for a client," adding that he believed the legal right to abortion "is the settled law of the land . . . . There's nothing in my personal views that would prevent me from fully and faithfully applying that precedent."
The ambiguity means that conservatives, to some extent, "are being asked to take a leap of faith," says Manuel Miranda, who heads a coalition of conservative activists, but that leap has been eased by the White House staff, which made phone calls to assure conservative religious groups before Bush introduced Roberts. Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, says he was told by a White House aide that Roberts "would have respect for precedent, but that precedent would not have the same weight as the Constitution itself," perhaps signaling the nominee's stance on Roe.
Support from religious activists stems largely from reports of Roberts's faithful Catholicism and his wife's activism with the antiabortion group Feminists for Life of America. On a conference call among prominent conservative activists after the president's announcement, the initial concerns were about Roberts's religious affiliation, according to one participant.
Because his record of judicial decision making is so brief, speculation has abounded about how Roberts might fit in when the court opens its new term on October 3. "Those who know him say he is extremely conservative," says American University law Prof. Herman Schwartz, author of Right Wing Justice: The Conservative Campaign to Take Over the Courts . "[But] he doesn't make speeches. He doesn't write articles."