Nominee Roberts Gets a Little Help through the Senate

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Supreme Court nominee John Roberts continues to meet with senators and prepare for his televised hearings, scheduled to begin on Sept. 6. A focus on consensus could smooth the nomination of a conservative judge to the next High Court vacancy.


The National Archives released more than 5,000 documents this week on Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. Papers come from his time as a lawyer in the Reagan White House, and they provide potential ammunition for Roberts' opponents. His supporters are working to keep the focus on a smooth confirmation. Their efforts could affect more than one Supreme Court seat. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams spoke to strategists from both sides.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

The Bush White House placed the political strategy for the Roberts nomination in the hands of two political veterans, former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, and there's an emerging consensus in Washington that barring some major controversy, John Roberts is on track to be confirmed. So far the biggest fight has been over whether all the judge's writing should be made public. Thompson defends the White House decision not to release some documents.

Former Senator FRED THOMPSON (Republican, Tennessee): You have usually younger lawyers over there giving advice on controversial issues and the government's plans and talking about their weaknesses in a particular case and their strengths in a particular case, all from a legal standpoint, nothing in there that would disclose anyone's personal views, I would doubt.

WILLIAMS: The latest documents that have been released do show Judge Roberts' views during a critical period of the Reagan administration. He was critical of the Supreme Court's 1985 decision banning voluntary prayer in public schools. He opposed repeated appeals in death penalty cases. He criticized Republican congresswomen who supported legislation to have some women paid wages equal to men for comparable jobs. As Judge Roberts makes his rounds in the Senate, Thompson says those issues do not come up.

Mr. THOMPSON: There has been much less of these conversations concerning the latest document that's been revealed in the paper that morning than there has been on the broader issues, such as interstate commerce, and obviously it's a more congenial setting when you're going into someone's office, and to a person, they've been very friendly.

WILLIAMS: Has anyone said, `We don't want to meet with you'?

Mr. THOMPSON: No. Some people want to meet two or three times, and that presents its own problem.

WILLIAMS: How long does a meeting take?

Mr. THOMPSON: Usually 45 minutes, but clearly in a hearing setting where all their colleagues are there and people are tuned in on television and the media is there, you know, members have somewhat of a different role to play. It'll be different than the friendly sessions that we've had over these last few months.

Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): Fred Thompson would just charm you out of your socks. I think the White House is very wise to send Fred Thompson up for these visits.

WILLIAMS: Senator Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, recently met with Roberts and Thompson. The meeting took place in Wyden's Capitol Hill office and lasted over an hour. Wyden understands the White House is after his vote. He says it was clear that the judge had studied up on the issues that are important to him, including right-to-die issues which are being debated in Oregon and the landmark Supreme Court abortion rights case Roe vs. Wade.

Sen. WYDEN: And I asked him specifically about the comments that he had made during his confirmation process for the appellate court, and he said at that time that Roe vs. Wade was settled law. And I asked him what was his definition of settled law, and he said to some extent it depends on the bench in which you sit. And I think that's the kind of issue that needs to be followed up on in the fall hearings.

WILLIAMS: That distinction could be important. If Judge Roberts sits on the Supreme Court bench, he will have the power to overturn settled law such as Roe vs. Wade. At the moment, Wyden has not decided on how he will vote on the Roberts nomination. The opposition to Roberts and the other side of Fred Thompson's charm offensive on Capitol Hill is being spearheaded by Ralph Neas, president of People For the American Way. His group is organizing to pressure senators in 23 states to oppose Roberts.

Mr. RALPH NEAS (President, People For the American Way): I think it's very premature to say this is a done deal, and everything always depends on the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. Whatever happens with respect to this nomination affects obviously subsequent nominations. So the most important outcome, I think, is to make sure that the Democrats and Republicans take this seriously, that this is not some kind of coronation.

Professor MICHAEL GERHARDT (University of North Carolina): With 55 Republicans in the Senate, President Bush can be relatively confident that he's got the numbers to win this, but I don't think he just wants to win it 55-45.

WILLIAMS: Michael Gerhardt, now a law professor at the University of North Carolina, worked for the Clinton White House during Justice Stephen Breyer's confirmation hearings. He says the White House also wants to win a large number of votes among Democrats.

Prof. GERHARDT: What also seems to be very important is to help fortify a precedent for the widespread consensus on the approval of a nominee with conservative judicial philosophy for the purpose of being able to say, `Look, we had widespread consensus on the choice of Roberts, and so now we have another nominee with a similar philosophy, and therefore, why can't the same precedent control?' That's a very important reason, and I think the other thing that may not be mentioned very much is that there's probably a good chance that Roberts might be nominated later as chief justice.

WILLIAMS: So the White House is trying to win as big a vote as possible for Roberts. Fred Thompson is targeting members of the Judiciary Committee. So far no Democrats on the committee have said they would back Roberts. The White House is also going after the so-called Gang of 14, seven Democrats and seven Republicans who prevented a ban of filibusters in a recent fight over nominations to lower federal courts, and part of the strategy means making sure Judge Roberts will be ready when he's in the spotlight. The White House team has been drilling Roberts to prepare him for the televised Senate Judiciary Committee hearings to be held next month. Fred Thompson.

Mr. THOMPSON: There's such array of potential issues and things, you know, what you think about Plessy vs. Ferguson vs., you know, the latest books you've read.

WILLIAMS: And how much time does that take?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, it depends. You know, we have some sessions that are two or three hours long, and we'll get a cup of coffee and talk about it, how we think the various senators will respond to various approaches. So it's hopefully a good exercise. It's kind of like what someone has said about politics. He said 95 percent of it's wasted effort. You just don't know which 95 percent it is.

WILLIAMS: The meetings have continued even during the Senate's August recess. Senator Wyden.

Sen. WYDEN: They realize that by being accessible and ensuring that senators who do want these visits have them, but I think the White House is wise not to arrange these meetings and then say, `All right. We gave you an hour, Senator. Are you going to vote for him?' I think that there's a rhythm to these processes, but I'm certainly going into those fall hearings affected by the nominee's approach in my office.

WILLIAMS: So as the recess winds down, here is the scorecard on the Roberts nomination: Of the 55 Republicans in the Senate, only a handful of moderates have signaled that they have serious questions for the nominee. Among Democrats, no one so far has announced a flat-out no vote. If Roberts is confirmed easily with Democratic backing, the Bush White House will likely argue the conservative ideology is no longer legitimate grounds for blocking any future nominee's bid for a seat on the Supreme Court.

Juan Williams, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You can find complete coverage of the Roberts nomination at

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