Roberts' Pro Bono Work Raises Eyebrows

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Federal Appeals Court Judge John Roberts, President Bush's choice for the Supreme Court, has done pro bono legal work for at least some organizations he did not mention in the questionnaire he filled out for the job. While a lawyer in private practice, he assisted in a case in which his law firm represented a coalition of gay rights activists.


President Bush's choice for the Supreme Court, John Roberts, is a solid conservative. He's seen as a man in the tradition of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. But at least some of the pro bono legal work that Roberts did in private practice advanced the cases of liberal activists, and that has some conservatives starting to wonder. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.


Some of John Roberts' colleagues at the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson remember two cases he worked on as a pro bono attorney. In one, he fought for the rights of welfare recipients in DC. In the other, he leant his legal expertise to help fight for the rights of gays and lesbians.

Mr. WALTER SMITH (Hogan & Hartson): John could have said no to either or both of those and that would have been that, no questions asked.

SULLIVAN: Walter Smith was John Roberts' boss at the time, head of the pro bono department at Hogan & Hartson.

Mr. SMITH: Some people wouldn't have wanted to work on a welfare rights case or a gay rights case, you know, on one side or the other. If John had felt that way, then I would have said, `That's great. That's fine. We'll find something else that would interest you.'

SULLIVAN: But Smith says Roberts never said no. In fact, he says he often sought out Roberts' help on cases that took a more liberal stance.

Mr. SMITH: I don't ever remember John ever turning down something I came to him with.

SULLIVAN: John Roberts, as champion of welfare recipients and gay rights, is not the image most of Washington has been seeing. But Roberts has been something of a enigma, having spent most of his career avoiding the limelight and expressing few personal opinions. And those who have worked closely with him say that just because he may have participated in a particular case doesn't reflect what he may believe personally. Jean Dubofsky was the lead lawyer in that gay rights case, Romer vs. Evans. The case led the Supreme Court to strike down a Colorado law that barred gays from suing over discrimination in jobs and housing. Dubofsky successfully argued that case before the high court, and says Roberts' expertise and advice was crucial to her winning the case.

Ms. JEAN DUBOFSKY (Lawyer): He was terrifically helpful in a very practical way. He said, `First thing you have to remember is to count to five. You've got to have five judges, and you have to pitch your argument so that you can get five people on the court.'

SULLIVAN: But to this day, Dubofsky says she still has no idea how Roberts actually felt or feels about gay rights.

Ms. DUBOFSKY: Well, you know, he's very hard to read under those circumstances.

SULLIVAN: Roberts mentioned his work on the welfare case in the questionnaire he completed for the Senate Judiciary Committee, but he didn't mention his role in Romer vs. Evans. Word of his involvement in the gay rights case has made some social conservatives more skittish about him. Stephen Fitschen is president of the National Legal Foundation, a Christian public interest law firm that fought against Romer vs. Evans. He says Roberts' involvement in that case will renew fears among social conservatives that Roberts will prove less conservative than advertised.

Mr. STEPHEN FITSCHEN (President, National Legal Foundation): I personally hope that this does not really prove to be evidence of that. He was in that legal culture where you have these firms that specialize in appellate advocacy, they offer pro bono services in that area and they take all comers.

SULLIVAN: Other outspoken conservatives seem to be reserving judgment. A spokeswoman for Gary Bauer, the president of the group American Values, says her boss is not yet ready to offer any reaction. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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