September 13, 2005

John Roberts: Umpire or Ideologue?

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Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them …
I come before the committee with no agenda. I have no platform.

— John Roberts’ opening statement, Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing, September 12, 2005

The opening statements of the 18 senators who will first vote on John Roberts’ nomination for Chief Justice of the United States set the stage for the confirmation battle. The 10 Republicans and 8 Democrats previewed their expectations of the interrogation of Roberts, which begins today.

Whereas the Democrats favor widespread questioning to get to know the man who could shape the law of the land for the next generation, Republicans seek to limit the examination to only that necessary to achieve confirmation. Democrats are concerned about whether Roberts would strike down acts of Congress that protect civil rights and liberties, and whether he would give blind deference to executive power; Republicans are gunning for reversal of Roe v. Wade, and for destruction of the wall that separates church from state.

Roberts ended his opening statement by saying, “I look forward to your questions.” The way Roberts decides to answer – or not answer – questions probing his judicial philosophy will determine whether he would come to the Court as an impartial umpire, or a right-wing ideologue.

Republican senators on the committee repeatedly invoked “the Ginsburg precedent,” saying that during her confirmation hearing, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg refrained from answering questions about her judicial philosophy. But when asked a specific question about a constitutional right to privacy, Ginsburg answered:

There is a constitutional right to privacy composed of at least two distinguishable parts. One is the privacy expressed most vividly in the Fourth Amendment: The Government shall not break into my home or my office without a warrant, based on probable cause; the Government shall leave me alone. The other is the notion of personal autonomy. The Government shall not make my decisions for me. I shall make, as an individual, uncontrolled by my Government, basic decisions that affect my life’s course. Yes, I think that what has been placed under the label “privacy” is a constitutional right that has those two elements: the right to be let alone and the right to make basic decisions about one’s life’s course.

Ginsburg could not have more clearly stated that she believes the Constitution contains a right to privacy. But during his confirmation hearing for the Court of Appeals, John Roberts refused to say whether he thinks there is a constitutional right to privacy. If he refuses once again to answer this hot-button question, it is safe to assume he subscribes to his earlier characterization of the “so-called ‘right to privacy'” and the statement in the brief he co-authored in Rust v. Sullivan: “The Court’s conclusion in Roe that there is a fundamental right to an abortion … finds no support in the text, structure, or history of the Constitution.”

There are two striking differences between the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Ginsburg and Roberts. First, when Bill Clinton tapped her for the high court, Ginsburg had a much more extensive record of public writings than Roberts. Second, hers was a consensus nomination. Clinton had cleared it with Senate Republican leaders in advance. Bush did not consult Democrats before nominating Roberts.

Most of Roberts’ public writings date back to his tenure in the Reagan administration. The White House refuses to supply the committee with memos he wrote while serving as principal deputy solicitor general in the Bush I administration. The memos would provide the senators with more current information about his views. Decrying the Bush administration’s refusal to grant access to Roberts’ full record, Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) said, “We can only wonder what they don’t want us to know.” Russ Feingold (D-Wis) added, “I also must say candidly, the refusal gives rise to a reasonable inference that the administration has something to hide here.”

Extremist right-wing organizations such as Operation Rescue and the Family Research Council, which have anti-abortion and anti-gay agendas, celebrate Roberts’ nomination. Yet conservative Republican senators such as John Kyl (R-Ariz) say that ideology should not play a role in Roberts’ confirmation: “It would be a tragic development if ideology became an increasingly important consideration in the future. To make ideology an issue in the confirmation process is to suggest that the legal process is and should be a political one.”

Other Republicans are more forthcoming. For Lindsey Graham (R-SC), “the central issue before the Senate is whether or not the Senate will allow President Bush to fulfill his campaign promise to appoint a well-qualified, strict constructionist to the Supreme Court and, in this case, to appoint a chief justice to the Supreme Court in the mold of Justice Rehnquist.”

“This is a confirmation proceeding, however, not a coronation,” observed Feingold. Speaking of memos Roberts wrote during the Reagan administration, Feingold said, “In memo after memo, his writings were highly ideological and sometimes dismissive of the views of others.” This does not bode well for a chief justice who must consider the opinions of his colleagues and attempt to achieve consensus on the Court.

Several Democratic senators were concerned about Roberts’ evident willingness to strike down Congressional statutes. “When we discuss the Constitution’s commerce clause or spending power,” said Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), “we’re asking about congressional authority to pass laws to ensure clean air and water and children’s and seniors’ health, and safe, good drugs, safe workplaces, even wetland protection, levees that should protect our communities from natural disasters.”

Republicans frequently decry what they call “activist judges.” Richard Durbin (D-Ill) spoke about Frank Johnson, a federal district judge from Alabama and a life-long Republican. “Fifty years ago,” said Durbin, “following the arrest of Rosa Parks, Judge Johnson ruled that African-Americans of Montgomery, Alabama, were acting within their constitutional rights when they organized a boycott of the buses and that Martin Luther King Jr. and others could march from Selma to Montgomery.”

The Ku Klux Klan branded Johnson the most hated man in America; wooden crosses were burned on his lawn. “Judge Frank Johnson,” Durbin noted, “was denounced as a judicial activist and threatened with impeachment. He had the courage to expand freedom in America. Judge Roberts, I hope that you agree America must never return to those days of discrimination and limitations on our freedom.”

Durbin also warned of the dangers of government sponsorship of religion. He quoted Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion in the recent Ten Commandments case: “At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumptions of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate. Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails while allowing private religious exercise to flourish. Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

Diane Feinstein (D-Cal), the only woman on the committee, told Roberts, “It would be very difficult … for me to vote to confirm someone whom I knew would overturn Roe v. Wade, because I remember … what it was like when abortion was illegal in America … As a college student at Stanford, I watched the passing of the plate to collect money so a young woman could go to Tijuana for a back-alley abortion. I knew a woman who killed herself because she was pregnant.”

Several senators referred to Roberts’ stellar academic and professional qualifications. Yet, in the words of Russ Feingold: “We must evaluate not only his qualifications, but also his ability to keep an open mind, his sensitivity to the concerns of all Americans and their right to equal protection under the laws; not only his intellectual capacity, but his judgment and wisdom; not only his achievements, but his fairness and his courage to stand up to the other branches of government when they infringe on the rights and liberties of our citizens.”

Charles Schumer (D-NY) declared that the American people “need to know above all that, if you take the stewardship of the high court, you will not steer it so far out of the mainstream that it founders in the shallow waters of extremist ideology.”

Explaining why it is critical that Roberts fully answer questions about his judicial philosophy and legal ideology, Schumer said, “As far as your own views go, however, we only have scratched the surface. In a sense, we have seen maybe 10 percent of you – just the visible tip of the iceberg, not the 90 percent that is still submerged. And we all know that it is the ice beneath the surface that can sink the ship.”

Will John Roberts be forthcoming about his views on the issues of concern to Americans, such as civil rights, women’s rights, privacy, religious liberty, executive power, and environmental rights? Or will he play hide the ball and deprive us of critical information with which to judge the man who will judge the issues that affect us all?

Quoting Senator Paul Simon at the Ginsburg confirmation hearing, Durbin cautioned Roberts: “You face a much harsher judge than this committee. That’s the judgment of history. And that judgment is likely to revolve around one question: Did you restrict freedom or did you expand it?”