Young Nominee May Influence Supreme Court for a Generation
September 15, 2005 5:59 PM
Judge John Roberts, who is nominated to be chief justice of the United States, is not a household name among average Americans, or the lawmakers who must confirm him. However, his impact on daily life may be imminent.
Roberts has been a judge on the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia Circuit since 2003. He was nominated by President George Bush to fill the vacancy of retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in July. But with the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Bush put forth Roberts to replace him.
James Martel, an SF State political science professor, said Bush’s political capital is so low - as a result of criticism over Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts - that he cannot afford a drag out fight over Roberts in the Senate.
“Roberts will ensure a Rehnquist-like conservatism remains on the court for years,” Martel said. “The real battle now will be over who Bush picks to replace O’Connor. He’ll go for another conservative, but not an overly ideological judge. I don’t think (Roe v. Wade, a 1973 case legalizing abortion) will be thrown out, but rather, slowly eroded bit by bit.”
Marcella Roundtree, 18, is a political science freshman. She said press attention on abortion is blown out of proportion. Roundtree is a first-generation American whose father was born in Norway, and her mother in Chile. If given the chance to ask Roberts a question, Roundtree would like to see him focus on another issue.
“What is his position on immigration?” Roundtree said. “Just his whole stance on open borders … there’s definitely a little too much red tape to become a citizen.”
Hearings - where Roberts may be confirmed as the 17th chief justice - began Sept. 12, with the Senate Judiciary Committee conducting inquiries. Some senators tried to pressure Roberts to reveal how he would rule on abortion, patients’ right-to-die, or eminent domain cases.
In her opening statement committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.) said, "It would be very difficult for me to vote to confirm someone to the Supreme Court, whom I knew would overturn Roe."
Roberts declined to tell the media how he might rule on specific issues, citing they may be cases taken up by the court in the future. The committee will vote whether to recommend Roberts' nomination to the full senate on Sept. 22.
A few days before the hearings, a forum to assess the qualifications of Roberts was held at Schroeder’s Restaurant in San Francisco. It was sponsored by San Francisco for Democracy, a non-partisan organization that works to ensure elected officials are held accountable. Peter Keane, a criminal law professor at Golden Gate University and legal analyst for CBS News, speculated whether a turn in judicial outlook is in store for the high court.
Keane illustrated the importance of the chief justice by recalling the Brown v. Board of Education case (1954) that legally ended segregated public education in the United States. The court originally heard the case one year prior - led by Chief Justice Vincent. Although a final ruling had not been issued, the court had indicated it was inclined to vote 5 - 4 to retain segregation, noted Keane.
But when Vincent suddenly died of a heart attack, he was replaced by California Gov. Earl Warren. Warren - who abided by the federal internment of Japanese Americans in California during World War II - now was attempting to attain belated justice for a different minority by using power he previously lacked, according to Keane. Warren convinced the court of his argument, and they voted unanimously to overturn segregation.
The hallmark of the Warren court was a legacy of preserving individual liberties, whereas Rehnquist marked his tenure by his effort to roll back the Warren decisions, and rule in favor of corporate government and police power, according to Keane.
The only records that may indicate Roberts' future rulings were documents he published more than 20 years ago when he was a special assistant to the U. S. Attorney General, Keane said. He characterized him as someone on the more conservative wing of the Ronald Reagan administration.
“We clearly see worse characters Bush could have put up there,” Keane said. "Roberts appears to be fairly thoughtful, careful. For us to have on the court that kind of quality, and survive the remaining years of the Bush administration, I think the country comes out pretty good.”
Yet Keane sounded a note of caution: “He believes that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. And he said that there is no constitutional right of privacy. Now that’s bad. That would be a big step back.”
Political Science Professor Michael Graham teaches a course in
“Roberts is likely to get confirmed given the lineup in the senate, unless something explosive is disclosed,” Graham said. “Keep in mind the hearings go beyond just giving information about the nominee. It’s a public exercise and their conduct, (senators) could be influenced by their (presidential) ambitions.”
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