Bush opens drive to raise Roberts' profile

President praises, sticks close to his nominee for Supreme Court seat

President's Nominee For Supreme Court

July 21, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

President Bush used events at the White House and Baltimore harbor yesterday to promote the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr., in an effort to pre-empt liberal attacks on his Supreme Court choice.

The Senate should "rise to the occasion" with "a fair and civil process" that puts Roberts on the bench by early October, Bush said at the port of Baltimore. The president made a morning appearance there with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to deliver a speech about homeland security and the Patriot Act.

Roberts is "somebody Americans will be proud to have seated on that bench," Bush said. "He has the qualities that our country expects in a judge: experience, wisdom, fairness and civility."

FOR THE RECORD - A graphic in yesterday's editions incorrectly stated that Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was nominated by President Ronald Reagan. Justice Stevens was nominated by President Gerald R. Ford.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Burnishing image

On Roberts' first full day in the spotlight as Bush's first high court nominee, the president and his staff worked to burnish the 50-year-old conservative's image, deflecting questions from Democrats and liberal groups about his relatively slender record of opinions and portraying him as a highly qualified mainstream judge.

"I'm confident the senators will come to realize what I've come to realize: We're lucky to have a man of such wisdom and intellectual strength willing to serve our country," said Bush as he stood beside a beaming Roberts in the Rose Garden.

The glowing praise for Roberts was part of a still unfolding campaign by Bush to draw the nominee -- as yet unknown to most Americans -- closer to him. It was also a signal of the president's intention to stick by Roberts through whatever the confirmation debate might produce.

Bush said he told Roberts over morning coffee in the first family's quarters that "we'll provide all the support that's necessary for the senators to be able to make up their minds."

"We will push the process forward," said Bush, as he dispatched Roberts to Capitol Hill for an initial round of courtesy calls on members of the Senate.

Bush also sent former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, tapped before Roberts' selection to shepherd the Supreme Court nominee through the confirmation process, to accompany the judge as he made his rounds.

Roberts, a consummate member of Washington's legal establishment, kept his public comments to a minimum.

He was careful not to seem presumptuous about his prospects, telling reporters, "I appreciate and respect the constitutional role of the Senate" in the confirmation process.

White House aides said Roberts, who has been a judge for only two years, should not have to answer questions about his positions on key issues or cases in order to win confirmation.

"Senators have the right and a responsibility to ask questions and ask tough questions. That's their role," said Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary. But he said asking a Supreme Court nominee to take a position on matters on which he might have to rule would be inappropriate and runs counter to past practice.

"There has been a tradition in the Senate where other nominees to our nation's highest court have not gotten into discussing issues that may come before the court that they may have to decide. That would be prejudging cases before they have heard them," McClellan said.

He mentioned Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, both named by President Bill Clinton, as examples of nominees who declined to answer questions about prospective rulings.

Democrats and liberal interest groups, however, said they would demand to know where Roberts stands on critical legal issues, such as abortion and privacy rights.

"The Senate must learn whether he has a clear, consistent commitment to upholding constitutional standards like civil rights, the right to privacy, and Roe v. Wade," Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, said in an e-mail message to his supporters.

"We need to ask the tough questions to determine whether John Roberts is the nominee who will give America a court that is fair, independent, ethical and committed to constitutional freedoms rather than an ideological agenda."

Advertising campaign

Conservative groups, meantime, began an onslaught of advertising and other public-relations efforts to tout Roberts' sterling resume -- he's an honor graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law who has argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court -- and to urge the Senate to schedule a vote on his nomination, now expected sometime in September.

Progress for America, which worked to re-elect Bush, said it would spend $1 million on an ad campaign in the next week. The group released a TV commercial calling Roberts "brilliant."

Bush and his advisers, who have spent years laying meticulous plans for filling a Supreme Court vacancy, found themselves on the brink of a process that is historically difficult for a White House to control.

Bush's announcement Tuesday night was carefully staged to make a splash about Roberts' selection and limit the ability of activists, politicians and reporters to delve into his background. The president continued in that vein yesterday with the Rose Garden appearance alongside Roberts and the speech later in Baltimore.

Democrats, meanwhile, were working to avoid being branded obstructionists -- a charge Republicans have leveled in the past in response to Democratic opposition to Bush's judges -- while still leaving open the possibility that they might decide to slow or block Robert's nomination.

Still, the chorus of "wait-and-see" comments from Democrats left open the possibility that Bush might have achieved an important goal with Roberts' nomination: depriving his opponents of ammunition with which to tear down his Supreme Court choice.

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