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Marjorie Cohn: The Roberts Court?

The Roberts Court?

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

Monday 25 July 2005

Consider this: John Roberts's nomination for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court is confirmed by the Senate. Chief Justice William Rehnquist steps down. Then, Bush elevates Roberts to Chief.

This scenario would avoid the nasty fight that would surely ensue if Bush elevated his model Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia - or chose another rabid right-winger - to be Chief Justice. The Democrats lined up to pose with the smiling Roberts during his expertly choreographed visit to the Senate last week - not a word about a filibuster if Roberts refuses to explain his record as apologist for the Reagan and Bush I administrations and the big corporations he represented. And judging from the giddy reaction of Operation Rescue and the Family Research Council to Roberts's nomination for Associate Justice, Bush's conservative base would be thrilled.

Rehnquist was a radical, far out of the mainstream of the rest of the Court, when Ronald Reagan made him Chief. When he clerked for Justice Robert Jackson, Rehnquist had written a memo called, "A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases," in which he advised Justice Jackson to affirm Plessy v. Ferguson's "separate but equal" doctrine in future segregation cases, including Brown v. Board of Education. The memo stated, "I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by my 'liberal' colleagues, but I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed." Rehnquist concluded that the Court should uphold segregation and refuse to protect "special claims" simply "because its members individually are 'liberals' and dislike segregation." Plessy was later overturned in Brown v. Board of Education.

A former Rehnquist law clerk, Roberts is Rehnquist Lite - but less controversial than Rehnquist was when he became Chief. While not directly attacking Brown, Roberts, as Associate Counsel to President Reagan, argued in favor of right-wing legislation that would have prohibited judges from ordering busing to desegregate schools. Why? Because, said Roberts, busing "promotes segregation rather than remedying it, by precipitating white flight."

Hale fellow, well met, Roberts is smooth. Since junior high, he has assiduously groomed himself to be on the Supreme Court. In a footnote in his 1994 law review article, Roberts wrote, "In the interest of full disclosure, the author would like to point out that as Deputy Solicitor General for a portion of the 1992-93 term, he was involved in many of the cases discussed below. In the interest of even fuller disclosure, he would also like to point out that his views as a commentator on those cases do not necessarily reflect his views as an advocate for his former client, the United States." Roberts, who knew that someday he might have to explain those views to a Senate Judiciary Committee, set out to distance himself from them.

After Roberts's nomination last week, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Associated Press identified Roberts as a member of the right-wing Federalist Society. But after the White House called the news organizations and informed them that Roberts said he "has no recollection" of ever being a member of the Federalist Society, they printed retractions. Lo and behold, the Washington Post reported today that John G. Roberts Jr. is listed as a member of the steering committee of the Federalist Society in its Lawyers' Division Leadership Directory, 1997-1998.

This could blow up in Bush's face. With Watergate, it was the cover-up that became the blockbuster. The same thing could happen with "Federalistgate" (and "Plamegate," for that matter).

But what if Roberts is confirmed? What would a Roberts Court look like? Roberts, who wrote a brief saying there is no right to an abortion in the Constitution, would work to overturn Roe v. Wade. But even more alarming, Roberts, who spent the lion's share of his government service in the executive branch, would extend the scope of presidential authority in an unprecedented manner.

George W. Bush has pushed the envelope of executive power to a new level - by invading a sovereign country that posed no threat to America, based on his illegal "pre-emptive war" doctrine; by declaring that, as Commander-in-Chief, he has the power to suspend the Geneva Conventions; by planning to covertly influence the "democratic" Iraqi elections; by threatening to veto any bill Congress passes that would encroach on his presidential power; by snooping through the sites we visit on the Internet and the books we read; and by shielding Karl Rove from criminal prosecution (don't be surprised if something untoward happens to the independent prosecutor investigating Rove).

Four days before Bush tapped him for the Supreme Court, Roberts, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, granted the President unchecked authority to create kangaroo courts to try suspected terrorists, even though the Constitution gives only Congress the right to establish courts.

In the never-ending war on terrorism, Roberts would likely defer to the President to torture, assassinate, or imprison for life anyone the executive dubbed a "terrorist." He would likely defer to the President by upholding the noxious provisions of the Patriot Act that threaten our civil liberties but make us no safer. And Roberts, always the company man, would likely defer to the President whenever the executive takes a position that favors corporations at the expense of workers and the environment.

The justice Roberts would replace, Sandra Day O'Connor, wrote in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld last year, "A state of war is not a blank check for the President." Judging from his decision in Hamdan, Roberts might well write the executive that blank check.

Our constitutional system is grounded in the symmetry of three co-equal branches of government, each with separate and distinct powers. The 50-year-old Roberts would have the opportunity to shape the Court for decades. By moving the judicial branch to bypass Congress and defer to the executive, Chief Justice John Roberts could preside over a Court that will destroy the separation of powers as we know it.


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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