View of High Court From the Street

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Times Staff Writer

He is relatively young, people know that much. And conservative, definitely. A good family man, apparently, and fairly new to the bench.

Beyond that, John G. Roberts Jr. is mostly just a name in the news for many Americans, aware that President Bush has nominated him to fill a rare opening on the U.S. Supreme Court but not much more.

They know he was selected to replace a woman -- the first ever on the high court -- and though some would have liked to have seen another woman fill the seat of retiring jurist Sandra Day O’Connor, most felt gender or ethnicity was less important than judicial competence and fair-mindedness.


In dozens of random interviews last week in several states, Americans shared their thoughts about Roberts, Bush, the Supreme Court and its effect on the country.

The fuss in Washington over Roberts’ Senate confirmation hearings, over documents and unanswered questions, is a far-off rumble for most people, like a summer squall gathering beyond the horizon. Televised hearings on his nomination begin Sept. 6, after the Senate returns from its summer recess.

But even if many of the details are sketchy, most people agreed that the high court was an institution that touched everyone in America, in ways significant and small, meaning a lifetime appointment -- particularly for a 50-year-old jurist like Roberts -- could make a great deal of difference for a great many years.

“If you look at what shapes the country politically, a lot of the time it matters who’s on the court,” said Michelle Schwarze, a 20-year-old Democrat, as she paused to consider Roberts’ nomination from behind a fashion boutique counter in Reno, one of the hardest fought-over cities in the 2004 presidential campaign.

The sampling of opinion does not represent a scientific survey. But taken together, the interviews offered a broad sense of the political backdrop for the first debate on a Supreme Court nominee in a decade.

There was a general consensus, regardless of political persuasion, that Roberts’ confirmation was all but inevitable, barring some startling revelation.


“I don’t think that should or shouldn’t is even an issue here,” said Jane Plummer, a 32-year-old teacher and no fan of Bush, as she waited for a friend at a park in downtown Seattle.

“Unless there is something in his background that someone finds, you know, not paying his nanny properly or something, of course they will confirm him. That’s where controlling the Senate matters for the Republicans.”

There seemed to be little appetite, even among Democrats, for the partisan warfare that sunk the nomination of federal judge Robert Bork in 1987, or the political acrimony that turned the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings into a national psychodrama.

“We don’t need another big fight in Congress right now,” said Pat Waltman, 62, pausing as he browsed the magazine section at a Borders bookstore in Houston.

“They need to be working on Iraq and Social Security,” said Waltman, who voted last year for Sen. John F. Kerry for president. “I’d rather see their energies go there and not in a long, drawn-out battle over a Supreme Court nominee.”

That said, most want to know more about Roberts and his views on issues -- abortion was the one that most frequently cropped up -- before the Senate decides whether to confirm him as one of the high court’s nine justices.


Roberts sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is widely regarded as the second most powerful in the country. But his two-year stint has left a meager paper trail, raising questions about his views on such contentious issues as abortion, affirmative action and the environment.

“I don’t think we should rush into it,” said Rod Little, 63, a retired union machinist from Reno, who suggested the Supreme Court, with its abundance of elderly jurists, could use some shaking up. “I think we should learn a little more about him and his ideas. It sounds like to me they’re trying to push the shoe before they know the foot fits it.”

Republicans, not surprisingly, were pleased with Bush’s pick. “The main thing is that [Roberts] is conservative,” said Tony Esteban, a 77-year-old retiree people-watching at the Glendale Galleria. “For me that’s important because I’m a conservative.”

Dan Barnett, the 54-year-old owner of a small gaming company in Reno, suggested the Supreme Court had “gotten out of hand” in recent years with decisions such as June’s 5-4 eminent domain ruling, which gave cities broad power to bulldoze homes and small stores to make way for business development. “That’s just ludicrous,” he said.

Judith Villalobos lamented the recent court decision limiting the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

“Right now we’re in a very bad crisis in the United States,” said Villalobos, 68, as she stopped in front of the Art Deco postal building in downtown Reno. “There’s a lot of issues that people are bringing up that they shouldn’t be wasting time on. Like the church, when they removed the Ten Commandments. That’s silly. I think we need to be closer to God with all the things that are happening in the world.”


For several Democrats in Reno and elsewhere, the nomination of Roberts -- though not exactly welcome -- was not as bad as they feared.

Mary Ratliff, a 67-year-old Houston-area nurse, said Roberts “doesn’t look like anybody the Democrats need to go to the wall to block. Whatever his personal beliefs are, it seems he will be able to apply the law and Constitution first. At least, that’s how it looks now.”

Charlotte Voitoff, who pulled up to the Reno post office in a red Subaru wagon affixed with a Kerry-Edwards sticker, said she was “somewhat concerned” about Roberts’ stance on abortion, which Voitoff said she believed should stay legal.

Although familiar with his opposition to abortion as a lawyer in the first Bush administration, “those were not statements from the bench,” she said. “Those were wearing a different hat. So I’m sort of reserving my opinion. But my first reaction is that he was more moderate than I expected.”

The 59-year-old retired high school English teacher said she would have liked to have seen a woman appointed to replace O’Connor, one of two female justices on the Supreme Court. But like most, Voitoff said, “It’s important to have a person who’s qualified rather then one simply based on gender or political philosophy.”

Jim Brown, a 63-year-old contractor and political independent -- “I don’t sing, I don’t play football” -- was even more adamant. “I don’t think that has anything to do with it,” he said of the nominee’s gender. “You pick someone because of their intellect and their morals and scruples. Not their gender. Because then you can say, ‘Let’s have a gay justice. And let’s have this or let’s have that.’ ”


Part of the uncertainty surrounding his nomination stemmed from the fact that it could take years to know Roberts’ true measure.

Several of those interviewed seemed to understand something that presidents have learned over time, often to their great frustration. As Piero Zorio put it, “You never know what these guys or gals are going to do once they’re on the court.”

Zorio, 72, who backed Kerry over Bush last year, was beating the 95-degree heat on a bench inside Reno’s Parklane Mall. Outside, a few parked cars huddled beneath a handful of shade trees like cattle seeking refuge on the range.

Zorio, a former middle- and high-school history teacher, cited Earl Warren, Harry Blackmun and O’Connor as justices who confounded Republican presidents by proving more moderate -- sometimes greatly so -- than their political patrons had expected.

“They may be conservative or liberal,” Zorio said of Supreme Court nominees, “but they may surprise everybody.”

Times staff writer Ammara Durrani in Glendale and researchers Lynn Marshall in Seattle and Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this report.