Q&A: John Roberts to the Supreme Court Appeals court judge John G. Roberts Jr. was thrust into the national spotlight Tuesday when President Bush nominated him for the Supreme Court. NPR political editor Ken Rudin takes a look at the nominee, the initial response to him and the outlook for his Senate confirmation.
NPR logo Q&A: John Roberts to the Supreme Court


Q&A: John Roberts to the Supreme Court

Federal appeals court judge John G. Roberts joins the president in a televised address to the nation from the White House in Washington on July 19. Reuters hide caption

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Appeals court judge John G. Roberts Jr. was thrust into the national spotlight Tuesday when President Bush nominated him for the Supreme Court. NPR political editor Ken Rudin takes a look at the nominee, the initial response to him and the outlook for his Senate confirmation.

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Who is John Roberts?

The Career of Judge Roberts


1976: Graduates from Harvard College


1979: Receives law degree, Harvard Law School


1979-1981: Clerk for Judge Henry J. Friendly and then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist


1981 to 1982: Special Assistant to United States Attorney General William French Smith


1982 to 1986: Associate Counsel to President Ronald Reagan


1986: Joins powerful Washington firm Hogan & Hartson


1989 to 1993: Principal Deputy Solicitor General of the United States


1993: Returns to Hogan & Hartson


2002: Nominated to U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit (confirmed 2003)


2005: Nominated to U.S. Supreme Court


He has been a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for the past two years. Prior to that, he was a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Hogan & Hartson. Roberts has also served as the U.S. deputy solicitor general and was special assistant to the U.S. attorney general during the first Reagan term. He also clerked for William Rehnquist at the Supreme Court when Rehnquist was an associate justice. A well-known appellate litigator, he has argued more than 30 cases before the Supreme Court.

What is his reputation?

He is known to have a brilliant legal mind with impeccable credentials and unquestioned integrity. He had a reputation as one of the nation's best litigators. Even Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who voted against Roberts' appeals court nomination in the Judiciary Committee, said, "There is no question that Judge Roberts has outstanding legal credentials." Emory University law professor David Garrow, an expert on the court, said Roberts would be "an institutionally committed moderate conservative." When Roberts was nominated to the appellate court, 146 members of the D.C. bar signed a letter urging his confirmation, including some former Clinton administration officials.

What is the early outlook for his confirmation?

We've learned from the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 that it would be foolish to make a prediction in advance of any Senate action or hearings. Still, barring some unforeseen revelation, Roberts will be favored to win confirmation. David Boies, who argued before the court on behalf of Al Gore during the disputed 2000 presidential election, called Roberts "a brilliant lawyer, a brilliant judge," and a "decent man. I think everybody who knows him likes him."

How would you characterize the initial response from conservatives?

Universally positive. Pro-life, pro-family groups were ecstatic. Perhaps they were relieved that the president didn't pick Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general and longtime Bush ally who many conservatives felt was "soft" on abortion. They say Roberts, despite the lack of detailed "paper trail," is a solid conservative, citing his record on abortion, the environment and church-state issues.

And what are liberals saying?

For the most part, they have either held their tongue or reacted warily. This is not to say that they will not mount a public and expensive campaign in an attempt to defeat the nomination. MoveOn.Org Political Action head Eli Pariser called him a "right wing corporate lawyer" who would join the "right wing activist block of [Antonin] Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas." A statement by People for the American Way said Roberts' "sparse" record "raises serious concerns." Among the concerns is Roberts' opinion in support of Vice President Cheney's decision to keep secret his energy task force. Senate Democrats insisted they would press Roberts at the Judiciary Committee hearings on where he stood on some key issues (read: abortion).

Why did Roberts have a good deal of support among Democrats when he was nominated to the appeals court?

One reason may be that Roberts was nominated at the same time as Miguel Estrada, on whom the Democrats focused much of their ire. Another may simply be that Roberts is affable and gave a good accounting of himself. The Senate confirmed his nomination by voice vote after he won approval on the Judiciary Commitee, with only three dissenting votes. The three Democrats who voted against him — Schumer, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Richard Durbin of Illinois — complained that he avoided direct answers to serious questions.

What is Judge Roberts' record on abortion?

Having been on the appellate court for just two years, he doesn't have the "paper trail" that other potential nominees have. As deputy solicitor general during the administration of the first President Bush, however, he signed a legal brief in 1991 arguing for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a women's right to abortion. But Roberts was arguing on behalf of his client, the U.S. government, so it is not clear if this is his personal view. Democrats will no doubt try to ascertain that during confirmation hearings.

If Roberts is confirmed, what would that indicate about the future of 'Roe v. Wade'?

Even if we assume that Roberts opposes the Roe decision, his confirmation — replacing Roe supporter Sandra Day O'Connor — would not endanger the decision guaranteeing a woman's right to abortion. It is generally thought that there is currently a 6-3 pro-Roe majority on the current court. In addition to the departing O'Connor, the other supporters are Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. The anti-abortion minority is comprised of William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Swapping O'Connor for Roberts would make it 5-4. But there are a handful of certain types of abortion — issues involving parental consent and the medical procedure opponents call partial-birth abortion — where the votes on the court have been close and where Roberts could make a difference.

Is it too early to discuss Bush's 'legacy' regarding the court?

John Roberts is 50, a young age considering that most of the current judges are over 65. If confirmed, he could last 25-30 years on the court.

What about the rumors circulating in Washington on Tuesday that the nominee was going to be Edith Clement of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals?

Journalists and lawmakers seemed convinced that Bush would pick Clement. The president, asked about Clement at a news conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, refused to comment on the rumor. Meanwhile, thousands of hours were spent Googling Clement's record, and thousands of trees were destroyed in the effort to print out her decisions on the court.