The stampede to confirm Judge John Roberts as the 17th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court roared through the full Senate Thursday as the chamber voted 78-22 to give President Bush's 50-year-old nominee a lifetime sinecure at the head of the nation's highest and most powerful court.
Roberts's record of opposing expansion of the Voting Rights Act, unyielding allegiance to the corporate interests he served as an attorney in private practice and extreme deference to executive power he served as an aide to President's Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush drew broad grassroots opposition.
People For the American Way, the National Organization for Women, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Human Rights Campaign, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Americans with Disabilities Watch, the National Council of Women's Organizations, the National Council of Jewish Women, Rainbow PUSH, the Fund for the Feminist Majority, Legal Momentum, the National Association of Social Workers, the National Abortion Federation, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and MoveOn.org all expressed strong opposition to the Roberts nomination.
But most senators listened less to the grassroots than they did to Inside-the-Beltway chatter. And the easy confirmation of Roberts indicated that he met the exceptionally low standards that now represent the two-party consensus in Washington when it comes to judicial selection.
Every member of the Senate Republican Caucus voted for Roberts, including Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, a frequent dissenter from the party's conservative doctrines who is running for reelection in 2006 with the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the reproductive rights advocacy group that strongly opposed the nomination because of Roberts's repeated refusal to answer questions about whether the Constitution's privacy protections extend to a woman's right to choose. (Notably, one Republican who is facing the voters this year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was an outspoken opponent of confirming Roberts because, Bloomberg indicated, he feared that the nominee could turn out to be a judicial activist who would use his position and attack precedents that guarantee reproductive rights.)
The lockstep Republican support would have been enough to confirm Roberts with relative ease. But the nominee also fully half the votes cast by Democrats. Twenty two Democrats voted in favor of confirmation -- including frequent critics of the administration's judicial picks, such as Vermont's Patrick Leahy and Wisconsin Russ Feingold. So too did Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords, who left the GOP caucus in 2001 to work with the Democrats. In addition to Byrd, Leahy and Feingold, Democrats who voted to confirm Roberts included Montana's Max Baucus, West Virginia's Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman, Delaware's Tom Carper, North Dakota's Kent Conrad and Kent Conrad, Connecticut's Chris Dodd, South Dakota's Tim Johnson, Wisconsin's Herb Kohl, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Michigan's Carl Levin, Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, Washington's Patty Murray, Florida's Bill Nelson, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, Arkansas's Mark Pryor, Colorado's Ken Salazar and Oregon's Ron Wyden.
All 22 votes against Roberts came from Democrats -- including a number of moderates who are either strong supporters of reproductive rights (such as California's Dianne Feinstein and Washington's Maria Cantwell) or have presidential ambitions that cause them to be particularly sensitive to the concerns of grassroots Democrats (count New York's Hillary Clinton, Indiana's Evan Bayh and Delaware's Joe Biden in this camp).
Ultimately, however, most of the Democratic votes in opposition to confirmation came from the chamber's more reliably progressive members, including: Hawaii's Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye, California's Barbara Boxer, New Jersey's John Corzine, Minnesota's Mark Dayton, Illinois's Richard Durbin and Barack Obama, Iowa's Tom Harkin, Massachusetts's Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, Maryland's Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, Rhode Island's Jack Reed, Nevada's Harry Reid, New York's Charles Schumer and Michigan's Debbie Stabenow.
The most interesting "no" vote came from Obama. The Illinois senator, who delivered the keynote address at last summer's Democratic National Convention and arrived in Washington amid high expectations on the part of liberals, has tended to be a cautious player. The anti-Roberts vote represents one of his first big breaks with the two-party consensus and could indicate that he will be an important player in what is expected to be an at least somewhat more engaged debate over President Bush's nominee to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
© 2005 The Nation