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John Roberts on Principles & Values

Supreme Court Justice (nominated by Pres. George W. Bush 2005)


1990s: Argued dozens of cases before Supreme Court

I knew John Roberts' record: top of his class at Harvard and Harvard Law School. Law clerk to Justice Rehnquist, dozens of cases argued before the Supreme Court. Roberts had been nominated to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1992, but he wasn't confirmed before the election. I had nominated him to a seat on the same court in 2001. He was confirmed in 2003 and had established a solid record. Behind the sparkling resume was a genuine man with a gentle soul. He had a quick smile and spoke with a passion about the two young children he and his wife, Jane, had adopted. His command of the law was obvious, as was his character.

I believed Roberts would be a natural leader. I didn't worry about him drifting away from his principles over time. He described his philosophy of judicial modesty with a baseball analogy that stuck with me: "A good judge is like an umpire--and no umpire thinks he is the most important person on the field."

Source: Decision Points, by Pres. George W. Bush, p. 98 , Nov 9, 2010

Strongly supported by religious conservatives

By the time of Bush's election in 2000, religious conservatives were fully integrated into the party structure. They became precinct chairmen and county chairmen and dominated the apparatus of the party in states across the country. Their influence within the party reached a high point during Bush's presidency, symbolized by Bush's assiduous courtship of them and by the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices in 2005, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, whom they strongly supported.

Another moment that spring illustrated the power of the religious right, but in a way that would cost the Republicans. Congress passed legislation ordering federal courts to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman, after state courts had authorized doctors to remove her feeding tube. If the Roberts and Alito nominations showed the long-lasting influence of the religious right on the country's politics, the Schiavo episode showed the dangers of overreaching.

Source: The Battle for America 2008, by Balz & Johnson, p.231-232 , Aug 4, 2009

Opponents will fight only to hear Roberts’ issue stances

Democrats and liberal advocacy groups are scrambling to see if they can, and should, build a case against Roberts’ nomination to the Supreme Court. [They are] struggling to deal with a nominee whose two years as a federal appeals court judge has produced only a scant record that could be used to measure what kind of justice he might be.

No Democratic senator has stepped forward to oppose Roberts outright. But advocacy groups said they would press to question Roberts aggressively in confirmation hearings to fill in the information gaps.

Democrats said they would scrutinize Roberts’s record as a private lawyer for evidence of conflicts or ties to big business. And leading Democratic senators, well aware of a tense history between Democrats and this White House on the release of documents, said they would call on Roberts to release documents he wrote while working in the Solicitor General’s Office, and in the Attorney General’s Office under President Ronald Reagan, to try to divine his views.

Source: Adam Nagourney & Carl Hulse, International Herald-Tribune , Jul 22, 2005

Volunteer adviser to Bush in 2000 Florida post-election

Seeking to gauge Roberts’ conservatism, Democrats and outside groups also have begun raising questions about his activities, including assistance he gave the Bush legal team in Florida after the 2000 election. A spokesman for Gov. Jeb Bush said Roberts came to Florida at his own expense and met with Bush to discuss the governor’s responsibilities under federal law in a disputed presidential election. The spokesman said, “the governor appreciated his willingness to serve and valued his counsel.”
Source: Jan Crawford Greenburg, Chicago Tribune , Jul 21, 2005

Adopted two children

Jane Roberts, the wife of John Roberts, was a volunteer member of Feminists for Life’s board of directors from 1995 to 1999. She has provided legal assistance to the pro-life group and been recognized as a contributor who donated from $1,000 to $2,500. She has written for a newsletter for a pro-life group called ‘s newsletter, including an article about adoption. Roberts and her husband have adopted two children.
Source: Richard A. Serrano, Los Angeles Times , Jul 21, 2005

Public service history precludes “stealth candidate” label

Roberts has lived a relatively public work life, serving as a clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, as an attorney in the office of the U.S. Solicitor General under the first President Bush and as a lawyer at a blue-chip Washington law firm.

After serving just two years on the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Roberts’ record as a judge reveals little. It is a reality that will make some people nervous, but it could very well ease his path in the Senate, where confirmation hearings will take place after Labor Day.

Critics wonder whether Bush had nominated “a stealth candidate.” But how stealthy can he be with the entire conservative establishment on their feet cheering his appointment? Advocates on both sides of the partisan divide will go to school on Roberts over the coming weeks and months, and his “stealth” will be tested in hearings this fall.

Source: Denver Post, “Roberts file” , Jul 21, 2005

An establishment lawyer, with no all-encompassing philosophy

As a judge interpreting the Constitution, he said, “I don’t necessarily think that it’s the best approach to have an all-encompassing philosophy.’’ Roberts indicated at the hearing discomfort with Scalia’s view that judges must rely solely on the intent of the authors of the Constitution, and the wording of laws, to determine their meaning.

”I believe this guy is a basically quite conservative fellow,’’ said a law professor. “He generally will favor government over individual rights, and he will generally be sympathetic to states’ rights over national power. The president wanted to appoint someone markedly to the right of retiring Justice O’Connor in respect to these issues, and he did.’’

“He’s not coming to the court with a broad ideology or unified theory of constitutional law,’’ said a former Justice Department official. ”He’s a Washington establishment lawyer, not a revolutionary.’’

Source: Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle , Jul 21, 2005

Reliable conservative and perfect judicial temperament

Those who know Roberts say he is a reliable conservative who can be counted on to undermine if not immediately overturn liberal landmarks like abortion rights and affirmative action. Indicators of his true stripes cited by friends include: “He is as conservative as you can get,” one friend puts it. In short, Roberts may combine the stealth appeal of Souter with the unwavering ideology of Scalia and Thomas. But this take on Roberts puts some of his biggest boosters in a quandary. They praise Roberts as a brilliant, fair-minded lawyer with a perfect judicial temperament. But can that image as an open-minded jurist co-exist with also being viewed as a predictable conservative? “He respects the Court greatly, and would not ignore precedent,” says a colleague. “But if there’s a loophole or a distinguishing factor, he’d find it.”
Source: Tony Mauro, Legal Times , Feb 22, 2005

Positions a lawyer presents don’t have to be his own beliefs

Q: What is a lawyer’s obligation, as you understand it, under the Code of Legal Responsibility?

A: I think the standard phase is “zealous advocacy” on behalf of a client. You don’t make any conceivable argument. The argument has to have a reasonable basis in law, but it certainly doesn’t have to be a winner. I’ve lost enough cases that I would hate to be held to that standard. But if it’s an argument that has a reasonable basis in the law, including arguments concerning the extension of precedent and the reversal of precedent-the lawyer is ethically bound to present that argument on behalf of the client. And there is a longstanding tradition in our country, dating back to one of the more famous episodes, of course, being John Adams’ representation of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, that the positions a lawyer presents on behalf of a client should not be ascribed to that lawyer as his personal beliefs or his personal positions.

Source: Hearing before the Judiciary Committee of the US Senate , Jan 29, 2003

There are certain areas where literalism doesn’t work

Q: You have told NPR you support an originalist approach to constitutional interpretation, saying the reason that that is the way it was in 1789 is not a bad one when you are talking about construing the Constitution. Of course, the Constitution in 1789 did not have the Bill of Rights. It allowed African-Americans to be enslaved back then. So the originalist concept can’t be an exact one, can it?

A: I don’t have an overarching, uniform philosophy. To take a very simple example to make the point, I think we’re all literal textualists when it comes to a provision of the Constitution that says it takes a two-thirds vote to do something. You don’t look at what was the intent behind that, and, you know, given that intent, one-half ought to be enough. On the other hand, there are certain areas where literalism along those lines obviously doesn’t work. If you are dealing with the Fourth Amendment, is something an unreasonable search and seizure, the text is only going to get you so far.

Source: Hearing before the Judiciary Committee of the US Senate , Jan 29, 2003

There is a right answer in every court case

I do think there is a right answer in a case, and if judges do the work and work hard at it, they’re likely to come up with the right answer. I think that’s why, for example, in the DC Circuit, 97% of the panel decisions are unanimous, because they are hard-working judges and they come up with the same answer in a vast majority of the cases. There are certainly going to be disagreements. That’s why we have Courts of Appeals, because we think district courts are not always going to get it right.
Source: Hearing before the Judiciary Committee of the US Senate , Jan 29, 2003

Other Justices on Principles & Values: John Roberts on other issues:
Samuel Alito
Stephen Breyer
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Elena Kagan
Anthony Kennedy
John Roberts
Antonin Scalia
Sonia Sotomayor
Clarence Thomas

Former Justices:
David Souter
Sandra Day O'Connor
William Rehnquist
John Paul Stevens

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Page last updated: Mar 08, 2014