Leahy Backs Roberts Despite Initial Criticism

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) talks to host Melissa Block about why he voted in support of John Roberts' nomination to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the committee, had been critical of Roberts during his confirmation hearings.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And we're joined by the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, one of the three Democrats voting yes to confirm John Roberts today.

Thanks for being with us.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

BLOCK: And, Senator Leahy, why did you vote yes?

Sen. LEAHY: Well, I thought about it all the way through, of course, like any major nominee. I actually spent the weekend--I actually ended up writing two speeches over the weekend: one for him and one against him. And I felt far more comfortable for him. In this case, I was genuinely having questions in my mind. I mean, John Roberts is undeniably brilliant. He is a very likable person. But is he going to be an ideologue? I'm convinced in my own mind he will not be.

BLOCK: Well, five of your fellow Democrats on the committee felt differently. They voted no. And they mentioned that they were both disturbed by what they didn't hear from him--things that he didn't answer--and the ways that he did answer certain questions. Do you share those concerns?

Sen. LEAHY: This is not a lockstep thing. It--to me it's a case where I don't think anybody that comes here really today presents such a unanimity in their own thought or their own image that you could have a lockstep. These are complex positions, usually with complex people. And I think if people are really paying attention, there will be different senators who will vote different ways.

BLOCK: Senator Leahy, how do you figure that back in 1986 that Antonin Scalia got confirmed unanimously in the Judiciary Committee, and in fact a couple of the senators who voted no today on John Roberts voted for Scalia back then--Ted Kennedy, Joseph Biden. And Scalia then went on to be confirmed by a unanimous vote: 98-to-nothing in the full Senate. What does that say? Are these far more partisan and fractious times?

Sen. LEAHY: No, I think we're doing our job better. I think after there'd been some very real battles in the Senate, I don't think we did our job adequate in that. If we had, I mean, Justice Scalia may well have been confirmed, but I think it would have been a different--there would have been a different dynamic.

BLOCK: You voted for Justice Scalia back in '86. Would you do so knowing what you know now?

Sen. LEAHY: Well, having watched what he's done, if I knew then what I know now, no, I don't believe I would have. I think he has been a very, very activist judge. I've watched the way he has almost in a willy-nilly fashion overturned mandates of Congress. If we knew then what we know now, I think the votes would have been a lot different.

BLOCK: You know, some on the Democratic side were saying, `Use this vote to lay down a marker for the president for the next confirmation hearing, for whomever he names to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. In other words, either show him that you're going to stand firm and not approve John Roberts and so that will guide him in his next choice, or give him a pass on this one and pick your battle. Make the next one the real fight.' What do you think about that?

Sen. LEAHY: We touched on this when Senator Specter and I met for breakfast with the president. We kind of talked about who's the next one coming down. And I urged don't play a game, as though we have this type now and this one there because whoever is nominated, if they're confirmed, they're going to be there long after the president is out of office, long after the rest of us are out of office, in fact, probably long after many of us are no longer alive. And a Supreme Court justice should be picked for all the people and not just to score short-term political gains for one party or another.

BLOCK: I wanted to ask you about that meeting with the president. Were you, in a sense, urging him to name someone who's moderate, who would get strong bipartisan support?

Sen. LEAHY: We suggested several names of people--Hispanics, African-Americans, women who have been nominated in the past by both Republicans and Democrats, been confirmed by the Senate. I would hope that the president listened carefully to that. This is not the time to send up somebody who's going to be a lightning rod because they're just to appeal as an ideologue for one narrow part of a political party.

BLOCK: And depending on who that name is, is there still a possibility of a filibuster?

Sen. LEAHY: Well, you know, I hate to even think of going into that. The country doesn't need more polarization. We're going through a terrible time with Katrina, and we have these budget questions where the administration wants money to both rebuild Iraq and the damaged parts of America. We have a lot of major debates coming on. Why not have the area where it should be above the fray--the court--why not nominate somebody who would keep it above the fray and would still give the American people first-class justice?

BLOCK: Senator Leahy, thanks very much.

Sen. LEAHY: Thank you. Good to be with you.

BLOCK: Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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