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Roberts on Roe: It’s ‘settled precedent’

Three days into confirmation hearings, Roberts remains vague.

What happenedChief Justice nominee John Roberts this week voiced his support for a constitutional right to privacy, but refused to say whether that should encompass the right to abortion. During three days of questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Roberts allowed that he considered the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision to be 'œsettled precedent.' But while he said most precedents should be honored, he stopped short of saying he would not vote to overturn Roe.

In the face of sometimes testy questioning by Democrats, Roberts refused to get drawn into detailed discussions about the most contentious issues likely to come before the court, including voting rights and church-state separation. Instead, he asserted the general view that the role of the judiciary is to interpret the law impartially, not make law from the bench. Roberts, currently a federal appeals judge, said that if he is confirmed as the nation's 17th chief justice, he would 'œremember that it is my job to call balls and strikes, not to hit or pitch.'

What the editorials saidO we of little faith, said The New York Sun. 'œGiven the amount of hysteria and demagoguery' since Bush announced Roberts' nomination, we were expecting days of partisan posturing and badgering. Instead, the hearings inspired a feeling of 'œprofound admiration for the sagacity of the Founders of America.' This was the system at its best: Roberts emerged as a modest, charming, highly qualified nominee, fielding substantive questions from 'œsome of the shrewdest senators ever to represent the sovereign states.' There's still time for the nomination to run 'œoff the rails,' but the process so far has been 'œdecidedly encouraging.'

Too bad we didn't learn anything, said the San Francisco Chronicle, other than that the conservative Roberts is a master of evasion. With 'œcomposure and craftiness,' he managed to deflect senators' most probing questions, offering only 'œclues and caveats, giving both sides cause for hope and concern.' Roberts clearly has a deep understanding of the law. 'œLess clear is where this would-be chief justice might try to steer the U.S. Supreme Court.'

What the columnists saidWith his answers on Roe, said Byron York in National Review Online, Roberts gave both conservatives and liberals reason to fret. Liberals wanted a guarantee, which he didn't provide, but Bush's pro-life base winced nonetheless at his declaration that abortion had become 'œsettled law.' Though he may have been 'œthreading the needle,' his words sure 'œsounded quite pro-Roe.' But conservative perceptions of Roberts rebounded when he came under attack by Democratic grandstanders Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy, whom Roberts masterfully deflected.

The man is 'œa tactical genius,' said Dahlia Lithwick in Slate.com. We already knew that Roberts was 'œbook smart,' but now we see he's just as 'œpeople smart.' Indeed, he delivered a 'œclinic' in how to survive a Senate confirmation hearing. Roberts, who himself has argued many cases before the high court, clearly is 'œaccustomed to answering really hard questions from extremely smart people.' And by presenting himself as a soft-spoken 'œHumble Guy,' he encouraged his camera-loving interrogators to waste their limited question time on 'œrambling speeches.' It's becoming increasingly obvious that 'œSenate Democrats are giving up.'

But give the Senate some credit, said Sheryl Gay Stolberg in The New York Times. After the partisan slugfests of recent years, senators from both parties understand that Roberts isn't the only one on trial here. With the public still rankled by slow government response to Hurricane Katrina, and with the prospect of a much fiercer battle over Bush's next Supreme Court nominee, senators have reason to be on their best behavior. Faced with a nominee who enjoys broad public support, the Senate may view the Roberts nomination as 'œan opportunity for a political makeover.'

What next?

Chicago Sun-Times

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