Roberts' role in gay-rights case stirs discussion

Supporters, opponents review 1996 work on issue

August 05, 2005|By Maura Reynolds | Maura Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Supporters and opponents of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. were caught off guard yesterday by news that he worked behind the scenes years ago to assist a gay-rights group to win a key case before the nation's highest court.

Debate erupted on conservative and liberal Web sites, with partisans on both sides asking whether Roberts' assistance to what is usually considered a liberal cause was an aberration from his otherwise conservative record or a sign that his views might be more nuanced than commonly thought.

Social and religious conservatives expressed dismay about his participation in the case but said they are not convinced it amounted to an endorsement of gay rights - a movement they strongly oppose.

The White House sought to play down Roberts' participation in the case, known as Romer v. Evans, in which the Supreme Court in 1996 voted 6-3 to strike down a voter-approved Colorado initiative that would have allowed employers and landlords to exclude gays from jobs and housing.

Roberts, then a lawyer at the Washington firm of Hogan & Hartson, helped gay-rights activists prepare their challenge to the initiative as part of his firm's pro bono work.

Roberts did not mention his work on the case in responding to a Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire that asked for examples of his pro bono work. Roberts' involvement in the case was first reported by The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Roberts spent less than 10 hours on the case while devoting more than 200 hours to two other pro bono cases in which he was lead counsel.

Jean Dubofsky, the lead lawyer for gay activists challenging the Colorado initiative, told the Times that Roberts gave her "absolutely crucial" advice in how to argue the case before the Supreme Court.

Some conservative supporters of Roberts denounced yesterday's focus on the case as an effort to set Republicans against each other.

"The Romer imbroglio is a red herring meant to divide the right," said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, which helps coordinate strategy on judicial nominations for conservative groups.

Similarly, liberal activists insisted the revelation did not change their concern that Roberts is not as supportive of civil rights as they would like.

"A primary issue for us is to what degree, if any, this work reflects on the judicial philosophy Judge Roberts would bring to the Supreme Court," said Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, a major gay-rights advocacy group.

Still, the revelation is awkward for both sides in the political battle over Roberts.

He was nominated by President Bush for the Supreme Court in late July to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring.

Some conservative activists have expressed concerns that he might become an "unreliable" justice like David H. Souter or Anthony Kennedy, who were appointed by Republican presidents but who have not consistently supported conservative positions on the bench.

But Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a central figure among GOP activists, said any conservative who withdrew support of Roberts over his participation in the Colorado case would be wrongheaded.

"The whole case that conservatives have been trying to make is that your personal feelings ought not to count" when you rule from the bench, he said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.