Roberts, Bush's Pick, Known for Conservative Views

President Bush will name appeals court judge John G. Roberts as his nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court. The selection of Roberts follows intense speculation over two other candidates: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and U.S. Appeals Court Judge Edith Brown Clement.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The president has chosen Judge John Roberts to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the United States Supreme Court. That word came just a few minutes ago. President Bush will formally introduce Judge Roberts less than an hour from now, and we'll have that event live for you when it happens. Now NPR's White House correspondent David Greene is with us.

Hello, David.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Hey, Robert. How are you?

SIEGEL: And NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is here as well.

Hello again.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

Hi.

SIEGEL: Nina, first to you. What do we know about Judge Roberts?

TOTENBERG: Well, Judge Roberts is probably the best combination for a president like George Bush. Nobody can deny that he's qualified. He is, you know, magna/summa everything from Harvard, Harvard Law School. He clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist. He clerked for a very famous lower court judge, Henry Friendly. He served in the Reagan White House. He served in the Bush number one Justice Department as the deputy solicitor general, what they call the political deputy. And he--nobody denies his legal credentials or his conservative credentials. And he has lots of Democratic friends who respect him and think that he's exactly the kind of conservative, very conservative, judge who they can support because of his excellence.

SIEGEL: In between that service in the Reagan administration and his elevation to the bench, he worked as a very successful Washington litigator in private practice.

TOTENBERG: Yes. He was head of the appellate section of a very important firm, Hogan & Hartson. And I would--I haven't seen the numbers, but I would guess that between his service in the Justice Department and his service at Hogan, he's probably argued something like 60 cases in the Supreme Court and won the majority of them. And he's argued on lots of different sides, although by and large in the private sector he has represented big business.

SIEGEL: I want to come back to what's going to happen next in the process after what's going to happen immediately; that actually will be the formal announcement that Judge Roberts is picked. But, first, on to David Greene.

I want you to tell us about today. A few hours ago the smart money at the White House was not on Judge Roberts.

GREENE: It sure wasn't. The day started with a very different name, and that was Edith Clement, who's a judge on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The White House seemed to be feeding speculation that she was going to be the pick. But by day's end it was one big guessing game, and a lot of White House officials were contacting reporters and suggesting they shouldn't get too far out with that name. The president himself appeared with reporters, and reporters had at him and tried every which way to get him to divulge who he had chosen. Mr. Bush was playful and refused. He even said, you know, `I'm looking for something profound to say without answering your question.'

SIEGEL: `Without answering your question' is what he told a reporter today. What do we know about the process, about what the president did and how they handled this search for a nominee?

GREENE: Well, it started out--all the signals were that the White House might string this along as long as they possibly could to avoid a confirmation battle that could be pretty dirty dominating the summer, through August and into September. But recently when news about CIA operative Valerie Plame and who leaked her name to the press and whether it was Karl Rove started to really get in the headlines, you got the sense that the White House might have pivoted and decided to accelerate things, which we seem to be seeing today.

SIEGEL: Nina, one of the most peculiar aspects of all this is that, until a couple of weeks ago, we didn't know if this would be a nominee for chief justice or associate justice or whether there would be two openings on the court.

TOTENBERG: Well, and I think most people, myself included, thought that the chief was likely to retire, so that the--when he didn't retire and O'Connor did, it was a big shock not--I think to the White House, too. And they, I think, strung everybody along. An additional reason was they were hoping they might get a second pick, and they could have, as it were, a balanced ticket. So they could have a woman or minority, on the one hand, that they weren't as positive of the conservative credentials and somebody that their base would just love, and they didn't get that. So, in the end, they suddenly realized, `Oh, my God, if we really want somebody to be at court in the beginning of October'--and Arlen Specter says the hearings are going to be in September--`that gives us only five weeks.' And you really do need five weeks to prepare, believe it or not.

SIEGEL: Nobody gets an instant free pass through a Senate confirmation.

TOTENBERG: No, you have to do an FBI check. You'd have the ABA. He needs 30 days to go check the qualifications and check everything they can. And the Senate needs time to prepare, to look--they have to get--everything this man has ever written will now be pored over. And he has to be prepared, too, no matter how smart you are. And he's about as smart as they come. You don't walk into a Senate hearing just without practice.

SIEGEL: I want to hear from both of you about the political questions that will now be addressed over the next several weeks, which are, I guess, as far as Republicans and conservatives are concerned: Is he conservative enough? And as far as Democrats in Washington might be concerned: Is he too conservative for them? What's--I mean, David, do you have any sense from the White House as to what the president's thinking is about what an appropriately conservative justice for the Supreme Court is?

GREENE: Well, the president seemed to be in a difficult spot because his approval numbers have come down recently; there are a lot of doubts about whether the White House has been truthful on a lot of other issues. So he seemed to be walking a fine line. He absolutely needs to satisfy the conservative base, probably especially on this first pick. I mean, it's a lesson he learned from his father very, very well. But it was not a time that he could anger Democrats to a point of being completely isolated and become a lame duck pretty early. So he had to walk a fine line. It'll be interesting to see how it starts playing out.

SIEGEL: What do you think, Nina?

TOTENBERG: I think that's right. And, in fact, he told the congressional leadership that he met with--he said, `You know, I really have to worry about the people who got me here, who elected me,' meaning his base. At the same time, he--you know, that doesn't really mean a huge bloodletting fight. So I'm going to read you a quote from E. Barrett Prettyman, who's a very distinguished Democratic lawyer in town, and he was a law partner of John Roberts before Judge Roberts went on the bench. And he said--and he's a lifelong Democrat, Barrett Prettyman. And he said, `He respects the court greatly and would not ignore precedent. But if there's a loophole or a distinguishing factor, he'll find it.'

And there is nobody who knows John Roberts who really doesn't think he's a bedrock conservative, although, you know, there are social conservatives who would have liked a fire-breather, and there are a few on the federal courts who've written, as judges, that Roe was wrongly decided and should be overturned. Now...

SIEGEL: He's written that Roe...

TOTENBERG: He's written that.

SIEGEL: ...was wrongly decided...

TOTENBERG: He wrote...

SIEGEL: ...but not as a judge.

TOTENBERG: Not as a judge. He wrote that as an advocate for the Bush administration in the early '90s, and he wrote that as an advocate--you know, as somebody representing the policy of an administration. And traditionally you don't ding people for the views of their clients.

SIEGEL: If somebody is at the solicitor general's office, they're the lawyer for the administration...

TOTENBERG: That's right. They're...

SIEGEL: ...and that's the position they represent.

TOTENBERG: ...representing the president's views.

SIEGEL: So you're saying that this is a very conservative judge with a very excellent record, thought of very highly by his peers, regarded as very conservative but hasn't left a paper trail saying what he thinks about...

TOTENBERG: Well, he's written a lot of law review articles, and I'd be lying if I told you I'd read them all. But we're all going to now read them all and see what he's said. One thing that is interesting about him: Even though he's a member of the Federalist Society, which a sort of society of very conservative lawyers, the fact is there are lawyers in town who file briefs for all kinds of causes, friend-of-the-court briefs, when they're not filing for a client. They're filing because they feel passionately about this. John Roberts doesn't do that. He represents clients. That's the kind of lawyer he is.

SIEGEL: When he was--before he went to the appeals court.

TOTENBERG: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Nina Totenberg, thank you very much.

David Greene, last question: Do you think that the folks at the White House are going to be happy to have the Supreme Court to talk about at White House briefings now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: I think they probably will be. They'd rather talk about that than Valerie Plame and Karl Rove.

SIEGEL: Rather talk about judges who might sit on the bench rather than reporters who might be sent to jail by judges. Thank you both very much, NPR White House correspondent David Greene and NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

SIEGEL: We've been talking about the news which should be made formal in about three-quarters of an hour; that is President's election of Judge John Roberts to be his first nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States, succeeding Sandra Day O'Connor.

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