Bush camp looks to Roberts' Democratic friends for help

Liberals note he's earned praise but say stances are what matter

July 26, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Jack Keeney Jr. is a proud, lifelong Democrat. He has worked for the party and all its presidential candidates for two decades. He has close ties to liberal groups such as People for the American Way.

But when it comes to who should become the next Supreme Court justice, Keeney agrees with President Bush: It should be his great friend, John G. Roberts Jr.

Keeney is one of several prominent Democrats - including some who held top posts in Democratic administrations - who have come forward to praise Roberts, a staunch conservative, as he embarks on a path to Senate confirmation.

Other admirers include lawyer David Boies, who represented Al Gore in the 2000 election recount, and Seth P. Waxman, President Bill Clinton's solicitor general, as well as lesser-known attorneys such as Keeney, who worked with Roberts at a Washington law firm.

Bush and conservative groups have invoked Roberts' Democratic allies as evidence that he is a "mainstream" judge.

The strategy is a familiar one for Bush, who has often sought to use the support of a handful of like-minded Democrats to accomplish key elements of his agenda. In this case, endorsements from Democrats are playing a central role in the selling of Roberts.

"It's one of the many factors that makes him such a good nominee and potential justice," said Ben Ginsberg, a former Bush campaign lawyer now advising the conservative group Progress for America. "His legal skills and judicial temperament are so good that he attracts people from across the political spectrum."

The night Bush tapped Roberts, Progress for America was ready with a list of surrogates - including Democrats - it had compiled "weeks and months in advance" to speak in support of the nominee, said Jessica Boulanger, a spokeswoman.

The strategy is vintage Washington establishment, where influential Republicans and Democrats often mingle in the same circles, their personal and professional ties trumping their partisan differences.

Beyond personal ties

That's the case with Keeney, a Kensington native who met Roberts 20 years ago at Hogan & Hartson, one of the largest law firms in Washington. The two became friends - Roberts was an usher at Keeney's wedding.

Roberts introduced Keeney when he was sworn in as president of the D.C. Bar Association last year. Keeney's 5-year-old daughters play with Roberts' 5-year-old daughter, Josie, and 4-year-old son, Jack.

Still, Keeney says, his support goes beyond personal ties. Roberts would make a good justice, Keeney argues, because of his brilliant legal mind and balanced temperament.

"It is not typical in the profession to have the extraordinary range of support that he has across the spectrum," Keeney said.

"There are people in this bar who are perceived as partisan ... and they would have been opposed by me and by many others. But the thing that is different about John is that nobody thinks of him as a partisan or an ideologue. He is conservative, but he is not a politician."

Liberal groups concerned about Roberts' nomination say testimonials are beside the point. Roberts' positions on issues should decide whether he's fit for the bench, they argue.

"Most people are saying many of the same things ... `superb lawyer, very affable guy,' but that's not the point," said Elliot M. Mincberg, legal director and vice president for People for the American Way, and another former Roberts colleague at Hogan & Hartson. "The key question is his legal and judicial philosophy, and that's something that I would be very surprised if anybody feels like they know."

Mincberg called the judge a "great guy," but said the Senate's job is to determine what kind of justice he would be. If he emulates conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia "it would be a potential disaster for constitutional rights and liberties," Mincberg said.

Questionable effect

As Democrats puzzle over their stance on Roberts' nomination, praise from respected voices within their party is complicating the calculus.

"It confirms the general notion that he's not such a radical, and it just makes it harder for somebody to find a reason not to vote for him. It makes it very hard to demonize him," said one D.C. lawyer and former Democratic official who asked not to be named for fear of creating a conflict if he were ever to appear before Roberts in court.

Jim Manley, communications director for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, denied that Roberts' Democratic allies were affecting the party's strategy for the confirmation debate.

"It's ultimately up to members of the Senate to decide whether he has the judicial temperament, qualifications and philosophy to be confirmed to a lifetime appointment," Manley said.

Some Democrats feel caught in a tug-of-war between their support for Roberts and their party affiliation.

Robert MacLaverty, a friend since their prep school days in Indiana more than 35 years ago, said Roberts is well suited to the high court, despite his conservative views.

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