All About A Guy Named John
He's brilliant, likable, a lawyer's lawyer. Why Judge Roberts is in for the grilling of his life
It was late August 1976, just a week before classes were to begin at Harvard Law School, and first-year student Stuart Miller, intent on a last few days of R&R on Cape Cod, had unloaded his belongings in Shaw Hall dormitory when he noticed an open door down the hall. Curious, he poked his head in and saw a young man surrounded by law books. His new classmate appeared to be at least a quarter of the way through the thick first-year texts. Why, Miller asked with some incredulity, are you doing all this work? "I want to get a head start," replied John G. Roberts, who returned to his books while Miller, now a San Francisco lawyer, set off for the Massachusetts shore.
Nearly three decades later, President George W. Bush's first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court will have his legendary preparation skills put to the test when the Senate Judiciary Committee opens confirmation hearings this week in the historic caucus room of the Russell Senate Office Building. The hearings, chaired by Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, are expected to continue through early next week (story, Page 44).
True blue? Barring a blockbuster disclosure, Roberts will win support from a majority of the committee's 18 members, 10 of them Republicans. And he's likely to be confirmed by a majority of the full Senate later this month in time to join the court by the October 3 start of its new term.
But the hearings may still have their share of drama. Will the nominee get any Democrats' votes? How will Democrats position themselves, especially those with an eye on congressional and presidential elections to come and another Supreme Court vacancy that could materialize at any time? And, perhaps most important, what about Roberts himself? Is he the true-blue conservative his champions suggest, or might he have a few surprises up his sleeve?
There's little argument that Bush made a savvy choice in the 50-year-old federal appeals court judge who served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations and clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist. His sterling legal credentials and, perhaps more important, his likability and made-for-TV attractiveness have made it difficult for those opposing him to get much traction. The down-and-dirty fight everyone expected over the first appointment to the high court in 11 years simply hasn't happened.
Activist groups on both sides seem to have accepted that reality: They've used press conferences and E-mails to broadcast their messages, stockpiling most of their advertising money for future battles. Even the White House has had to spend little political capital on Roberts, who argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court and earned a small fortune as the top appellate lawyer for the Washington firm Hogan & Hartson. Though every major liberal interest group has announced its opposition to Roberts, no Senate Democrat has yet come out against him. "Ninety percent of this," said Democratic committee member Sen. Charles Schumer, "is going to be decided at the hearing."
Democrats plan to aggressively question Roberts about his conservative legal views and judicial philosophy but acknowledge privately that a Senate floor fight would be fruitless and politically damaging. The math doesn't work, either. Democrats are outnumbered by Republicans 55 to 44 (Vermont Sen. James Jeffords is an Independent), and this spring they essentially dealt away their ability to filibuster the nomination by agreeing not to block judicial nominees absent "extraordinary circumstances." "The filibuster deal was an incredible success for us," said the conservative Federalist Society's Leonard Leo. "It took it off the table and defanged the other side."