Witnesses Weigh in on Nominee Roberts

The Senate Judiciary Committee wraps up hearings on the nomination of Judge John Roberts to be U.S. chief justice. Thursday, the committee worked into the night to hear 30 witnesses evenly divided between Roberts supporters and doubters.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Senate Judiciary Committee has finished its hearings on the nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice of the United States. Yesterday, the committee worked into the night to hear 30 witnesses evenly divided between Roberts' supporters and doubters. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg listened in.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

Testifying in support of Judge Roberts was a parade of law professors, former government officials, Roberts' friends and colleagues. Playing a large role were women and Democrats. Kathryn Bradley of Duke Law School.

Ms. KATHRYN BRADLEY (Duke Law School): I've been a Democrat since I was old enough to vote. But while the president has not enjoyed my personal support, his nominee has my full and enthusiastic support today. I could not be here today if I did not feel confident in trusting my own rights and those of my children and their generation to John Roberts for safekeeping.

TOTENBERG: And former Alaska Attorney General Bruce Botelho, also a Democrat, who hired Roberts to handle eight appellate cases for the state and yesterday sought to humanize Roberts as more than a brilliant lawyer. Early in the summer, Botelho said, he asked Roberts if he would meet with a group of Boy Scouts on their way to the National Jamboree.

Former Attorney General BRUCE BOTELHO (Alaska): The night that his nomination was announced--July--I e-mailed him to give him both my congratulations and to tell him that I understood that under the circumstances he had better fish to fry than meet with my troop. His reply, which was sent at 2 AM, began, `Nonsense. I can think of no more valuable use of my time.'

TOTENBERG: Raising doubts about Roberts were representatives of various civil rights organizations. Addressing Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center, Senator Dianne Feinstein said, in effect, it could be worse.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I don't see anything that's definitive and I do see things that provide a level to believe that this is a fine legal scholar who will truly look at the law.

TOTENBERG: But Greenberger said she had compared Roberts' testimony to the language Justice Clarence Thomas used in his confirmation hearing.

Ms. MARCIA GREENBERGER (National Women's Law Center): He used the same formulation that Justice Thomas did, and it was absolutely eerie to see how close they were.

TOTENBERG: Also raising questions about Roberts was Roderick Jackson, an Alabama high school girl's basketball coach who was fired from his coaching job when he complained that the girl's team was shortchanged in the budget and facilities compared to the boy's team. His suit for reinstatement and back pay went all the way to the Supreme Court where he won by a 5-to-4 vote.

Mr. RODERICK JACKSON (Basketball Coach, Alabama): I've heard a real lot that raises questions about whether Judge Roberts will act to protect my rights or for those young ladies that I represent. Like Judge Roberts, I have a son and a daughter and I will insist at every turn that my daughter have equal citizen rights with her brother. But as I have learned the hard way, sometimes you need help from the Supreme Court to make sure that you can do that.

TOTENBERG: More concern but not outright opposition was voiced by retired federal Judge Nathaniel Jones, who before going on the bench served as general counsel for the NAACP. Jones said that as a judge in the early 1980s, he thought most of the major civil rights questions had been settled.

Former Judge NATHANIEL JONES: And I now learned that in the boiler room of the Reagan administration, stoking out and crafting a lot of the theories that were being used in the course to attack these several principals was the nominee. Now that raises a question for me and for you--this committee--to decide whether, if one is a believer in the rule of law, why one would not accept the whole body of jurisprudence that has been built up when it was clear that we had this vast history of racial discrimination.

TOTENBERG: University of Chicago law Professor David Strauss, who edits the Supreme Court Review, refused to take a position on the Roberts nomination, but warned the committee that there are two kinds of conservative justice, the traditional conservative whose hallmarks are deference to Congress and respect for precendent and new conservatives whose hallmarks are a skeptical attitude toward the work of Congress and a willingness to overturn precedent.

Professor DAVID STRAUSS (University of Chicago): There are points in the history of the Supreme Court--the New Deal was one, the civil rights revolution was one. There are points in the history of the Supreme Court where the court rethinks and redefines its relationship to the other branches of government and its relationship to the rights of individuals. We may be at such a point.

TOTENBERG: The Democrats are still trying to figure out which style conservative Roberts is. How they answer that question will likely determine how many Democrats will vote for the nominee and how big a victory he will win on the Senate floor. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: So the hearings may be over but the debate is not. And you can find highlights and analysis of the Roberts hearings at npr.org.

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