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Archive for Monday, July 25, 2005

Roberts may lack varied experience

July 25, 2005

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— So what is there still to be learned about Judge John Roberts, President Bush's choice for the Supreme Court?

We know that he is intellectually well-qualified to contribute to the work of the court. He has been a standout in every classroom, from grade school in Indiana through Harvard Law; he has clerked for two distinguished jurists; argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court; and won high praise from fellow lawyers when he was nominated two years ago for the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, often regarded as the second most important court in the land.

We also know that he is very likely to be confirmed. He was cleared for his current post by voice vote, after only three of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Democrats opposed sending his name to the floor. Sandra Day O'Connor, the justice he would replace, called him a "fabulous" choice. John McCain, the senator in whose office the "Gang of 14" moderates negotiated their agreement to avoid a showdown over judicial filibusters, said there's no way that Roberts' record would justify any of the 14 declaring this an "extraordinary circumstance" warranting a filibuster.

Barring some surprise, Roberts is headed for confirmation by a lopsided margin. That speaks well of the president, who bypassed more controversial conservatives and who also denied himself, at least for now, the political benefit of naming the first Hispanic justice or the third woman.

Having argued earlier that Bush was probably eager for a smackdown with Senate Democrats, let me say that I am delighted to have been wrong.

So what can the Judiciary Committee hearings tell us about Judge Roberts? Much that is important about his view of the law and the courts in American society.

Despite his youthful summer jobs in the steel mills at Burns Harbor, Ind., where his dad was an executive, Roberts has led a sheltered life, absorbed in the law. Private Catholic schools, Harvard, appointed jobs in the White House and Justice Department, a million-dollar-a-year corporate practice, married to a fellow lawyer - all commendable but insulated.

At his earlier confirmation hearing, he rejected any doctrinaire approach to the law. When it comes to interpreting the Constitution, he said, "I don't have an overarching, uniform philosophy." But you can search his record in vain for examples of his sensitivity to the impact of the law on people's lives. He clearly reveres the institutions of this democracy - the federal system, the separation of powers, the Supreme Court itself - and that is a vitally important recommendation. But it is less clear how he views the role of the courts in securing justice for the citizens of the Republic.

That is something the senators can usefully probe. The human dimension is something Justice O'Connor provided, as the only member of the court who had served in elective office, as majority leader of the Arizona state Senate. That human dimension - the political judgment - is something the court needs. As Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican, said before Bush announced his choice, "It would be useful ... to have somebody" replace O'Connor "who's been out in the world and has a more varied background" than that of a career lawyer or jurist.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid publicly cautioned the president not to name "a knee-jerk conservative crusader who will march in lockstep to the tune of partisan pressure groups." Roberts is much better than that.

But it would be comforting to know that Roberts has been "out in the world" enough to know there's more to life than law books.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Group.

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