New Criticisms Aimed at Roberts

Times Staff Writer

Judge John G. Roberts Jr. may confront an unexpected opponent this week during the hearings on his nomination as chief justice of the United States -- Hurricane Katrina.

Although Roberts is expected to win confirmation, critics have begun to voice a new criticism of President Bush’s nominee after the storm that demolished parts of the Gulf Coast.

The line of attack was first sounded Friday by the Democratic National Committee’s outspoken chairman, Howard Dean, and reinforced Sunday by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the only African American member of the Senate.


Speaking about the black residents of New Orleans, who were the storm’s most visible victims, Dean said that Roberts’ “entire legal career appears to be about making sure those folks don’t have the same rights everybody else does.”

“That’s probably not the right thing to do,” Dean continued, “two weeks after a disaster where certain members of society clearly did not have the same protections that everybody else did because of their circumstances.... I know Judge Roberts loves the law. I’m not sure he loves the American people.”

Obama, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” picked up the same head-and-heart theme: “I think what we do need to ask ourselves is whether he has the heart, the breadth of perspective and the recognition that historically the role of the court has been to look out not just for the powerful but also the powerless.

“I think that Katrina does indicate that we’ve got a lot of problems in our midst ... in terms of poverty, in terms of the differences in life opportunities for blacks, whites, Hispanics,” Obama said. “That has to inform how we think about every branch of government and their functions, and I think that the Supreme Court is no different.”

Obama, like Roberts, is a magna cum laude Harvard Law School graduate and a former top editor of the Harvard Law Review. He said Roberts had not appeared to take racial issues seriously in his judicial thinking.

“There is an underlying concern that a judicial philosophy that ignores the possibilities of racial discrimination or gender discrimination, a political philosophy that typically errs on the side of the powerful, rather than the powerless, that’s a judicial philosophy that can ... exacerbate some of the problems that we have in this country,” Obama said.

Obama is not a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will conduct hearings starting today on the Roberts nomination, but he will vote on confirmation when it comes to the Senate floor. He said he would not decide how he would vote until after the hearings.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, said Sunday that although he would quiz Roberts closely, he would stop short of asking the high court nominee whether he would vote to uphold the decision in Roe vs. Wade that affirmed a woman’s right to end a pregnancy.

In his remarks on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Specter appeared to be retreating somewhat from previous statements in which he suggested that he would ask nominees detailed questions about abortion and other issues.

Five years ago in a political memoir, “Passion for Truth,” Specter wrote: “In voting whether to confirm a nominee, senators should not have to gamble or guess about a candidate’s philosophy, but should be able to judge on the basis of the candidate’s expressed views.” Specter is a longtime defender of abortion rights.

But on Sunday, Specter told NBC, “I think it’s inappropriate to ask [Roberts] head-on if he’s going to overturn Roe.” He later explained that he would limit his questioning because “a judge ought not to have to make commitments in advance as to how he’s going to decide cases.”

Specter also said that he would not directly question Roberts about the Supreme Court’s much-debated decision in Bush vs. Gore, which effectively ended the 2000 election in Bush’s favor.

He said he thought “it was a little soon” for Bush to consider nominating Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Roberts had originally been selected in July to fill the seat, but was nominated as chief justice last week less than 36 hours after the death of William H. Rehnquist.

Bush has said that he would like to be the president who names the first Latino to the high court. He and Gonzales are longtime friends; as governor of Texas, Bush named Gonzales to the Texas Supreme Court.

Specter described Gonzales, who became attorney general in February, as “an able fellow,” but noted that “we just went through a tough confirmation hearing, and my sense is that the national interest would be best served if he stayed in that job right now.”