No stranger to the high court, Roberts clerked, argued there

Views on issues such as abortion, death penalty are question mark

The Nominee

President's Nominee For Supreme Court

July 20, 2005|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Judge John G. Roberts Jr. already knows his way around the U.S. Supreme Court.

Representing the government or private interests at various times, he argued 39 cases before the top justices - and won 25 - with a steely intellect and quiet flair that led last night to his nomination to the court where he has proved so persuasive.

Roberts, who at age 50 could serve on the high court for the next three decades, is widely viewed as a highly talented lawyer with rock-solid conservative credentials.

But he also raises questions among advocates across the political spectrum, who say his relatively short tenure on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit gives few clues to his thinking about such divisive issues as abortion, affirmative action and the death penalty.

Working in the solicitor general's office in 1990, he co-authored a legal brief that argued, "We continue to believe that Roe [v. Wade]was wrongly decided and should be overruled." As a private lawyer, he authored a friend of the court brief opposing affirmative action programs in the Transportation Department and represented Toyota Motor Manufacturing in a successful challenge to the claim by a worker with carpal tunnel syndrome that she should be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Roberts' own views, and how he would rule in such cases, are largely unknown.

Asked about abortion issues during his January 2003 confirmation hearing for a seat on the powerful D.C. appeals court, Roberts called the landmark Roe v. Wade decision "the settled law of the land. ... There's nothing in my personal views that would prevent me from fully and faithfully applying that precedent."

At the same hearing, he was critical of the public focus surrounding whether a judge was appointed by a Democratic or Republican president.

"That gives so little credit to the work that they put into the case," he said. "They work very hard, and all of a sudden the report is, well, they just decided that way because of politics. That is a disservice to them."

He was confirmed by the Senate on a voice vote in May 2003.

The path ahead of him now is expected to be far more contentious. He started down it last night with a humble nod to the institution where he worked in 1980 as a law clerk to then-Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist and that he said he holds in "deep regard."

"I always got a lump in my throat when I walked up those marble steps to argue a case before the court, and I don't think it was just from the nerves," Roberts said in a prime-time appearance with President Bush.

Liberal groups focused quickly on his work as an attorney under President Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush and his long record representing corporate interests.

In a blunt assessment, Wade Henderson, the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said last night: "John Roberts may be a hard-nosed extremist with a soft conservative facade. In short, the president may have nominated a stealth candidate."

But former colleagues described Roberts as one of the nation's most skilled lawyers and a fair-minded judge. Conservative activists heaped praise on Bush's selection last night, saying that his long record with Republican administrations and his work on the federal bench suggest he will be a solidly conservative vote on many of the same issues where retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was considered a swing vote.

"Far from being an ideologue, Roberts is precisely the kind of quality person and lawyer Americans should expect to be on our highest court," said David Leitch, a former deputy White House counsel to the current President Bush. Leitch worked with Roberts at the Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson and at the Justice Department.

Manuel Miranda, chairman of the conservative Third Branch Conference, a legal advocacy group, called Roberts a "lawyer's lawyer who will interpret the Constitution and the law without regard to personal or religious views - as a judge and not a politician."

Roberts has long been viewed as a prime contender for a top federal judge post. He first was nominated to the D.C. appellate court in 1992, while he was serving in the solicitor general's office under Kenneth W. Starr. But Roberts' nomination died when Bush's term in office expired, and he returned to Hogan & Hartson until his nomination to the same court by the current President Bush in 2001.

After his second nomination died, he was nominated again in January 2003 and confirmed six months later.

In Roberts, the White House tapped a nominee with stellar legal credentials and an all-American personal story. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Roberts was raised one of four children in Long Beach, Ind., where he was captain of the high school football team and worked summers in the steel mills to help pay for his college education.

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