Wade Henderson, a civil rights leader who wields influence with Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats, lamented yesterday that U.S. Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. appears headed for a “coronation.”
“He has friends on both sides of the aisle.” said Mr. Henderson, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. “As a general matter, he is moving not so much toward a confirmation but what appears to be a coronation.”
The comments reflect a wariness among liberal lobby groups that Judge Roberts — viewed by them as extremely conservative — may garner broad support from not only Senate Republicans, but also from the Democrats with whom the groups are most closely aligned.
At last count, 44 senators — all Republicans — have expressed support for Judge Roberts. Another 15 — including 10 Democrats — have made positive statements about the nominee but declined to take a position until after Senate hearings.
And in recent days, even some of Judge Roberts’ toughest critics have been barely short of effusive after meeting with him in private.
“He went on to say that like most of us he hates bullies and he believes that the rule of law gives even the powerless their day in court and their chance,” Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, reported after meeting with Judge Roberts. “I liked that answer.”
Still, many questions remain, said Mr. Durbin, who was one of three Democrats to vote against Judge Roberts in the Senate Judiciary Committee two years ago when he was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Judge Roberts subsequently was confirmed by the full Senate’s unanimous consent.
Seated beside Mr. Henderson at a breakfast yesterday for reporters was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and a veteran of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“There is always a honeymoon period for the nominee,” said Mr. Kennedy, who has witnessed 18 Supreme Court confirmations and two more for chief justices. “That’s the way it always has worked in the past and it’s working this time.”
Mr. Kennedy, who met privately with Judge Roberts earlier this week, said yesterday that “Roberts is an honest man of considerable integrity.”
But he also raised many questions — as he has in the past — about Judge Roberts’ commitment to issues such as civil rights and pro-choice rights.
“What side is this nominee on?” Mr. Kennedy wondered at the breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “What we know is he is a wealthy Republican lawyer. The real issue is how is he going to come out on issues that are going to involve families and the people of this country.”
But Mr. Kennedy also said that all the recent speculation about Judge Roberts’ wife and her political views — particularly regarding religion and abortion — have no place in the debate over her husband’s nomination.
“I think it ought to be out of bounds,” Mr. Kennedy said when asked whether he thought Mrs. Roberts’ opposition to abortion was fair discussion of the nomination.
The senator also said that while he and his colleagues want to see any relevant material written by Judge Roberts while he was deputy solicitor general, he is not necessarily interested in getting everything.
“I think it’s only the documents that are related to the time that he served,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I’m not interested in a fishing expedition, but I think there are related documents.”
While Mr. Henderson — who has been among those involved in advising Democrats about judicial filibusters — worried about a “coronation” for Judge Roberts, he also said that liberal groups can declare partial victory already over Mr. Bush’s selection.
“The first phase of this was to try and encourage the selection of someone not on the fringes of judicial thinking but toward the center,” he said. “And to some degree, we may have already helped encourage that process because I do think that while John Roberts is certainly a core conservative … he doesn’t have the sharp edges.”
Mr. Henderson added that President Bush’s nominee to the high court has “a very attractive record.”
Nevertheless, he said, he and others are worried that Judge Roberts’ judicial philosophy is “a threat to core values and civil rights.”