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Published: Sunday, 7/24/2005

What we know about America's next justice

WASHINGTON - Children and pets. A politician's best friends.

When President Bush introduced his Supreme Court nominee, Judge John Roberts, Jr., to the American people, the oh-so-shrewd White House also ushered into the East Room Mr. Roberts' wife, appropriately named Jane, and their two adopted, adorable blond children, John, 4, and Josephine, 5. Young John delighted photographers by bursting forth in what might be called dancing. I, too, have danced in the East Room and completely understand what came over him.

Four days earlier, when Mr. Bush invited Mr. Roberts to the White House to be interviewed, he made a point of introducing Mr. Roberts to his dogs, Miss Beazley and Barney, who sat at their feet as the two men talked.

Although I have seen the Roberts family at church, I don't know them. But having been in Washington for the Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, I'd say the Bush Administration ought to be fairly pleased at this point. The marketing of John Glover Roberts is going exceedingly well.

Reminiscent of the Kennedy children playing in the White House, the Roberts children playing hide-and-seek in the august Supreme Court building is a refreshing thought. When Antonin Scalia first went to the Supreme Court, his children - Ann, Eugene, John Francis, Catherine Elisabeth, Mary Clare, Paul David, Matthew, Christopher James, and Margaret Jane - were briefly noted. But they grew up too quickly, although probably not from their parents' point of view, and long ago vanished from public radar.

The Bush twins, with their minor scrapes and outspoken ways, were diverting for a while. But, like Chelsea Clinton and Amy Carter, they, too, grew up.

For all the talk about children and the future in Washington, it's seldom that there are actually any children seen in the corridors of power. We'd know if they were there because children to photographers are like catnip to cats, pianos to Condoleezza Rice. It's like the annual toy fair in New York - a gazillion toys, but the policy is "no kids allowed."

Mr. Roberts said that his children remind him daily "why it's so important for us to work to preserve the institutions of our democracy." It seemed a heartfelt thought to me.

Mr. Roberts is a picture-perfect candidate from the White House point of view. He grew up in small-town Indiana. INDIANA! As middle-American as you can get! He played football. All the kids liked him. He got fabulous grades at Harvard. He got dirty in the summer working in a steel mill. He had top jobs working for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush when they were in the White House. He was deputy solicitor general. He's an appellate court judge. He made a fortune in private law practice at one of the best go-to firms in Washington. He attends Mass every Sunday. His wife is a lawyer and a mom. He is solidly conservative, a "Washington insider" without the arrogance.

Oh, sure, he thought it was OK to handcuff and arrest a 12-year-old girl for eating a french fry in the subway. And there's some strange business about toads - he refused to apply the Endangered Species Act to protecting the habitat of a rare toad in California on grounds the federal law can't be applied to a toad that, for whatever reason, has chosen to live only in California. His views on abortion are murky - he once argued before the Supreme Court that Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion, should be overturned, but also says that it is now "settled law."

Friends praise him as a brilliant lawyer brimming with integrity (no smart remarks about oxymorons, people). And foes? Well, he seems to have no foes. Perplexed Democrats in the Senate are not sure what to say, except to warn, cautiously, that he better be prepared for tough questioning.

But when he's sworn to tell the truth in his confirmation hearings in September, he's going to say about anything controversial he is asked that it is "very inappropriate" for him to express opinions on issues that might come before the court. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, both chosen by President Bill Clinton, said the same thing and got away with it.

The bottom line is that nobody, including Mr. Roberts, knows what kind of justice he is likely to be. Not Mr. Bush. Not Democrats. Mr. Roberts will not be filibustered, and he will be confirmed. We can only hope, for everyone's sake, that he proves to be a good justice.

Good judges evolve and are fair and open-minded. They grow wiser with experience and age. They are not ideological. They weigh the facts of each case. They sometimes disappoint people on the right and the left. They do not throw temper tantrums. If they have children, they set firm boundaries, but do not spank them. Their pets adore them.



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