When the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 on Thursday to approve the nomination of federal Appeals Judge John Roberts to become the next chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, several left-wing Democratic senators wound up with egg on their collective faces.
The one-sided committee vote showed that although recent hearings on the Roberts nomination may have produced some entertaining political theater, the outcome was never in doubt for this well-qualified nominee.
Playing shamelessly to the TV cameras and their most "progressive" constituents, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Chuck Schumer of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois looked foolish during the hearings as Judge Roberts artfully dodged their politically loaded questions by refusing to reveal how he'd rule on controversial issues that might come before the court. Judging by his carefully nuanced testimony, Roberts is a distinguished and thoughtful jurist. And by any reasonable measure, he seems to be more of a centrist than his conservative predecessor, William Rehnquist, who served the court for 33 years until he died last month.
"I don't think if you read (my) opinions, you'll say those are the opinions of an ideologue," Roberts told the senators. "Look at my (legal) briefs and you'll conclude that's a person who respects the law." Which is exactly what the president should be looking for when he nominates justices to the nation's highest court. In Roberts, President Bush found a brilliant, relatively youthful (50) attorney who has represented clients from across the political spectrum, from large corporations to gay rights activists, and has successfully argued many controversial cases before the Supreme Court.
"Some may say, well, that's sounds like you're a hired gun," Roberts commented. "(But) I think that's a disparaging way to capture what is, in fact, an ennobling truth about our legal system: that lawyers serve the Rule of Law above and beyond representing particular clients." Amen!
In refusing to answer senators' questions about how he would rule on future cases, Roberts followed a wise precedent established by current Supreme Court justices including liberal Ruth Bader Ginsberg, nominated by President Clinton in 1993, and conservative Anton Scalia, nominated by President Reagan in 1986. Both were confirmed easily despite ideological differences, and the same rules should apply to Roberts when the full Senate votes on his nomination this week.
On perhaps the most difficult issue of all, abortion, Roberts refused to comment directly on the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized most forms of abortion. Although Sen. Durbin accused Roberts, a Catholic, of employing legal "dance steps" to avoid the question of whether abortion is a constitutionally guaranteed right, the nominee did acknowledge that Roe v. Wade "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." That answer sent right-wing conservatives into paroxysms of doubt about the nominee. Personally, however, I think the fact that both the far left and far right are bothered by Roberts' mainstream views is good news for the rest of us.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Judiciary Committee's ranking minority member, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, supported Roberts in committee. "He is a man of integrity," Leahy said. "I can only take him at his word that he doesn't have an ideological agenda." By contrast, National Democratic Chairman Howard Dean, who self-destructed as a presidential candidate last year, spoke for the lunatic fringe of his party when he questioned Roberts' commitment to constitutional guarantees on civil rights and the right to privacy despite the judge's impressive record on those issues.
And our own Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, sided with left-wing extremists when he announced that he would vote against Roberts in order to resolve his doubts "in favor of the American people whose rights would be in jeopardy if John Roberts turned out to be the wrong person for the job." Nonsense! Reid should be ashamed of himself for voting against one of the most outstanding candidates for the Supreme Court in recent years.
Roberts' political kabuki dance before the Judiciary Committee was a scene-setter for the next battle over a Supreme Court nominee, which will occur when President Bush nominates someone to replace moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has been the court's "swing vote" on many 5-4 decisions.
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., hopes that Bush will nominate someone like Judge Roberts, "someone who will promote stability so there are no sharp turns." Although most senators want the president to nominate another judicial centrist, right-wing Republicans are hoping for an ardent conservative like Scalia or Justice Clarence Thomas. And several vociferous special interest groups are pushing for a minority nominee who shares their narrow views.
So President Bush faces yet another extremely difficult and controversial decision at a time when he faces major political crises in Iraq and on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and when his approval ratings have fallen to all-time lows. No matter who he nominates, radical special interest groups will be offended.
But if both political fringes are equally offended, he's probably doing the right thing. I hope that's the course the president will follow in the best interests of the solid majority of Americans who oppose "activist" judges and believe in the Rule of Law under the Constitution.
n Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.