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Marjorie Cohn: Mr. Roberts' Neighborhood

Mr. Roberts' Neighborhood

By Marjorie Cohn
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 21 July 2005

Who leaked the name of John G. Roberts before Bush's official prime time revelation Tuesday night? My guess: Karl Rove. He had the most to gain from an early announcement. Rove knows the mainstream media has a very short attention span. What better way to deflect our attention away from Rove's crime in leaking the identity of a CIA operative than to leak a potentially contentious nomination for the High Court?

What we'll never know is whether, absent Rove's scandal, Bush would've nominated someone else. Other candidates would probably have drawn a virulent response from Democrats, who have taken a cautious but muted stance toward Roberts's nomination. Many talk of his scant paper trail; they call him a "stealth candidate." But Roberts's record is clear.

As a lawyer for the Reagan and Bush I administrations, and later for his corporate clients, Roberts displayed a consistent commitment to conservative doctrine. In both abortion cases he handled, he maintained a legal attack on reproductive rights. In one case, Roberts argued that Operation Rescue's routine - sometimes violent - blocking of clinics where abortions were performed constituted protected free speech.

In Rust v. Sullivan, Roberts co-authored a brief in support of regulations prohibiting family planning programs that received federal aid from providing any abortion counseling. In that brief, he wrote: "We continue to believe that Roe was wrongly decided and should be overruled ... 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."

During his Senate confirmation hearing for appointment to the Court of Appeals in 2003, Roberts changed his tune - apparently. When asked about his views on abortion, Roberts assured the senators, "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." But his personal views wouldn't keep Roberts from unsettling Roe as the law of the land, consistent with his statement in Sullivan that there is no right to an abortion in the Constitution. Roberts would likely vote to overturn Roe v. Wade if presented with the opportunity as a Supreme Court justice.

Roberts has had other opportunities to demonstrate his partisanship. As a judge, he ruled against requiring Dick Cheney's energy task force to release its records to the public. He opposed protections in the Endangered Species Act. Displaying a clear conflict of interest, Roberts ruled against environmentalists seeking increased government regulation over copper smelters that emit toxic lead and arsenic pollutants; many of those smelters were owned by members of the National Mining Association. Just four years before, Roberts had filed a brief against citizens opposed to the coal industry's destructive mountaintop removal, on behalf of the same National Mining Association.

Last Friday, Roberts voted to support Bush's military commissions to try suspected terrorists, finding that the protections of the Geneva Conventions do not apply to anyone the administration believes is a member of al Qaeda. Bush established those commissions to deny the accused due process protections that are well-established in US and international law. Although he would probably recuse himself from this case if it reached the Supreme Court, Roberts is likely to walk in lockstep with the Bush administration in its "war on terror" and concomitant war on civil liberties in the years to come.

Roberts also showed his true colors when he argued for the expansion of religion in public schools, against a woman with carpal tunnel syndrome who was fired by Toyota, against federal affirmative action programs, and against a congressional effort to enable minorities to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

But Roberts is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. He was a member of "Lawyers for Bush-Cheney" and served as a legal advisor to Jeb Bush during the recount in the 2000 presidential campaign. He has donated to the political campaigns of several Republican candidates, including one senator on the Judiciary Committee that will vote on Roberts's nomination. He has spent most of his career as a corporate lawyer, and he comes to the Court with a partisan agenda.

At the end of the Supreme Court's 2000 term, Roberts told a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, "The conventional wisdom is that this is a conservative court. We have to take that more skeptically. On the three issues the public was most interested in - school prayer, abortion and Miranda rights - the conservatives lost on all." Sounds like wistful thinking.

It is incumbent upon the senators on the Judiciary Committee, and in the full Senate, to demand all pertinent records on Roberts from the Republican administrations in which he served. Senators must thoroughly interrogate Roberts about his views that could affect his lawmaking as a member of our highest court. They should ask him, for example, whether the Constitution has a right to privacy, and whether a woman's reproductive freedom is entitled to constitutional protection.

Roberts is not brash and outspoken. But he may well be the iron fist in the velvet glove. Having spent his entire professional career as a hired gun for the right-wing, Roberts is unlikely to betray his social and political constituency.

Those who think Roberts is a moderate who will generate little controversy need only notice the reactions of Bush's conservative religious backers. "The president is a man of his word," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a right-wing Christian organization. "He promised to nominate someone along the lines of a Scalia or a Thomas, and that is exactly what he has done." Operation Rescue President Troy Newman agrees. "We pray that Roberts will be swiftly confirmed," he announced.

It's payback time, and Bush has delivered.

And by the way, Bush is a president who insists he is firmly committed to diversity. There have been 109 justices on the Supreme Court. Roberts will be the 105th white male. He will replace the first woman ever to sit on the High Court. That leaves only one.


Marjorie Cohn, a contributing editor to t r u t h o u t, is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, and the US representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists.

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