Straddling a narrow line

July 20, 2005

WITH AN unprecedented flourish, President Bush presented to the nation last night a Supreme Court nominee with solid conservative credentials but little sign of the hard ideological edge sought by some of the president's supporters.

That won't stop interest groups on both sides from launching the confirmation war they've been planning in earnest since Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement this month. Indeed, attacks on D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge John G. Roberts Jr. were leveled immediately by advocates on both sides of the abortion issue.

But all those outside agitators should be ignored.

Judge Roberts deserves fair, thorough and respectful hearings, where he can fill in gaps left by his brief record of experience on the bench and his dearth of legal writings. We would urge him to be as forthcoming as possible.

As Mr. Bush observed in his extraordinary primetime introduction of Judge Roberts, filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court amounts to "placing in human hands the authority and majesty of the law." Naming a 50-year-old candidate to Justice O'Connor's swing vote seat may very well be Mr. Bush's most lasting contribution to the future direction of the nation.

Mr. Bush called Judge Roberts a candidate of "superb credentials and high intellect," fair praise for a Harvard-trained lawyer who served as an associate White House counsel during the Reagan administration and a deputy solicitor general in the administration of George H. W. Bush.

And Judge Roberts spoke convincingly of his own admiration for the court and its role in a constitutional democracy. Having served as a law clerk to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and having argued 39 cases before the court, Judge Roberts would assume a place on the bench as one of nine equals.

The fact that he was confirmed to the appellate court with little opposition just two years ago does not negate the Senate's duty to elicit his views and values on issues that affect all Americans, including the right to privacy, environmental rights, affirmative action, workers' rights, civil rights, federalism and church-state issues.

In passing over more clearly ideological candidates, Mr. Bush may have been hoping to take some of the steam out of the likely opposition - and probably did avoid reopening the controversy over judicial filibusters. The temperate tone of last night's announcement, to be followed with open courting and wooing of the Senate beginning today, might even help Mr. Bush change the subject from more unpleasant news coming out of Washington lately concerning top aide Karl Rove.

But as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, observed, no one is entitled to a free pass to the Supreme Court.

We look forward to the hearings.

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