President Bush’s newly announced Supreme Court nominee, John Roberts, visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with some of the senators on both sides of the aisle who will be key to his confirmation prospects.
As he made his rounds, Democratic lawmakers and abortion rights and other liberal activists began fine-tuning just how they should confront the president’s choice, as it sank in they are dealing with a nominee who, while long affiliated with conservatives, has written relatively few opinions, is affable rather than divisive and is admired across the partisan spectrum for his legal skills.
Roberts has been a judge only two years, confirmed easily in 2003 to a federal appeals court. Republicans, who control the Senate, are welcoming his nomination, and some already are predicting he will be confirmed to the high court by the time its new term begins in October.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold confirmation hearings, said she was disappointed that liberal advocacy groups came out swinging against Roberts within minutes of his name being made public Tuesday night.
“Let’s cool it,” Feinstein said. “Already, the phones are ringing as if this man was Attila the Hun. And he isn’t. This is a man that is well regarded within legal circles, who has a fine reputation, who is a mainstream conservative to the best of our knowledge at this time.”
Abortion rights groups are focusing their concerns on anti-abortion legal arguments Roberts made as a deputy solicitor general on behalf of President Bush’s father’s administration. But Roberts also said during his appeals court confirmation he considered the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade “the settled law of the land.”
Said Feinstein: “People are taking positions now before we have a chance to even begin our process, condemning him because he has represented a given client and therefore extrapolating that is his point of view. We need to go farther and try to ascertain: What kind of Supreme Court justice would he be?”
The White House is not expecting Roberts to share his ideological positions with senators.
“Judges have an obligation to apply the law, not their personal views,” spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.
But Sen. Arlen Specter, the pro-choice Republican who serves as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Roberts should have to discuss his philosophy about the Supreme Court overturning its own precedents, or invalidating laws passed by Congress.
Roberts, 50, is a Harvard Law graduate who served in private practice and as a deputy solicitor general before he was confirmed as a federal appeals judge for the D.C. Circuit. He has argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court. But he has revealed little about his personal beliefs on a range of issues that could come before the court.
Liberal groups are poised to spend tens of millions of dollars to bash or at least raise concerns about the president’s nominee, through national television ads and lobbying campaigns. Conservative groups, meanwhile, have pledged to spend tens of millions of dollars defending him.
Congress is in recess during August. Roberts’ confirmation hearings could begin around Labor Day.
Retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said she would stay until a successor is confirmed, but Bush says he wants his nominee in place by the time the court reconvenes on Oct. 3.
The more divisive the president’s nominee, the greater the likelihood Democrats would drag out confirmation and even threaten a filibuster. A filibuster would reignite Republicans’ threat to adopt a procedural move that would eliminate the minority party’s power to filibuster nominees.
Earlier this year, a bipartisan coalition of 14 senators agreed to preserve Democrats’ right to filibuster nominees in “extraordinary circumstances” in exchange for allowing some controversial appellate nominees to be confirmed. As of Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the lead Democrat in the bipartisan group, said he saw nothing about Roberts that would justify a filibuster.