Judge John G. Roberts Jr.’s rounds on Capitol Hill have resulted in a “he said/he said” spat between a senator with whom the judge spoke on Friday and a law professor’s account of how that conversation touched on abortion.
In a column in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said Judge Roberts told Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, that he would recuse himself from deciding cases where the Constitution conflicted with Catholic teaching.
“According to two people who attended the meeting, Roberts was asked by [Mr. Durbin] what he would do if the law required a ruling that his church considers immoral,” Mr. Turley wrote. “Roberts is a devout Catholic and … the Catholic Church considers abortion to be a sin, and various church leaders have stated that government officials supporting abortion should be denied religious rites such as communion.”
“Roberts appeared nonplused and, according to sources in the meeting, answered after a long pause that he would probably have to recuse himself,” wrote Mr. Turley, who added that it was “the wrong answer.”
Both sides of the confirmation fight leaped on the exchange.
Mr. Turley and others said it showed that Judge Roberts is unable to divorce himself from his religion while making rulings. Others viewed it as proof that Democrats such as Mr. Durbin — who also is Catholic — have a religious litmus test that would prevent them from supporting any devout Catholic to the federal bench.
The exchange “smacks of a religious test for judicial office, which is offensive to all Americans — whatever their religious beliefs,” said Wendy E. Long, counsel to the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network.
But some of the outrage came from Mr. Durbin’s office.
“Jonathan Turley’s column is not accurate,” Durbin press secretary Joe Shoemaker said, adding that his boss never asked that question and Judge Roberts never said he would recuse himself in such a case.
“Judge Roberts said repeatedly that he would follow the rule of law,” Mr. Shoemaker said.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, met with Judge Roberts yesterday and said he asked him about the column.
“There is no conflict for Judge Roberts,” Mr. Cornyn said later. “He assured me that he would not have any difficulties ruling on such issues.”
Disagreement also came on who leaked the exchange.
“I don’t know who was his source,” Mr. Shoemaker said. “Whoever the source was either got it wrong or Jonathan Turley got it wrong.”
Mr. Turley, contacted by The Washington Times yesterday, said his sources were Mr. Durbin and Mr. Shoemaker.
According to Mr. Turley, he met Mr. Durbin in NBC’s makeup room Sunday between the senator’s appearance on “Meet the Press” and Mr. Turley’s appearance on another program. According to the professor, Mr. Durbin told him the story while Mr. Turley took notes, adding that he called Mr. Shoemaker and read back his account of the meeting “word for word.”
“I specifically confirmed Senator Durbin’s account with his press secretary,” Mr. Turley said.