Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
September 15, 2005
I’ve watched a bit of the Roberts hearings, and the guy is smart and the guy is prepared and the guy is smooth.
But he may be too smart, too prepared, and too smooth for his own good—and for the country’s.
I sense in Roberts a troubling patness.
He’s figured out all the angles, he knows just what to say, and he says it with agility, aplomb, self-effacement, and humor.
But what lies behind the mask?
A summa cum laude from Harvard and Harvard Law School surely is savvy and self-aware enough to put Clearasil on his face.
And so he’s presented this facade of moderation and modesty.
But beneath the façade lies a foundation of Republican hackwork, and behind the most studied modesty often lurks arrogance.
I suspect it does here.
Let’s look beyond the rehearsed performance and examine the record.
Roberts was not just “working for a client” when he worked in the Reagan Justice Department and when he was principal deputy solicitor general under the first George Bush. “Roberts chose the ‘client.’ He chose to serve Administrations committed to rolling back civil rights protections, overturning Roe v. Wade, limiting access to federal courts, and undermining separation of church and state,” as People for the American Way has noted.
He wasn’t just some hired gun. He eagerly enlisted in the Reagan Revolution. And during the confirmation hearings, he beamed proudly at his association with it.
He was one of the architects of Bush I’s legal rollbacks, including prohibiting the use of federal funds in family planning clinics that perform abortions, limiting affirmative action, loosening the demands of school integration, and restricting prisoner appeals.
And he wasn’t hired at all in 2000 by George W. Bush. No, Roberts volunteered his legal services to help swing the disputed election into the Republican column.
The idea that he is somehow just an Indiana lawyer carrying a yellow legal pad and a briefcase for whoever wants his high-priced services is a joke.
In private practice, he faithfully served corporate America. And it’s returning the favor. For the first time ever, the National Association of Manufacturers has come out in support of a nominee to the Supreme Court.
He’s always understood that being a warrior for the right and a booster of business went hand in glove.
“It is possible to ‘defund the left’ without alienating TRW and Boeing,” he wrote in a February 3, 1983, memo.
In two recent cases as a sitting judge, Roberts showed his true colors.
In Hedgepeth vs. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Roberts upheld the actions of a police officer who arrested and handcuffed and booked a 12-year-old girl for eating a single French fry at a subway station, as Nat Hentoff has pointed out.
Roberts ruled that the arrest furthered “the legitimate goal of promoting parental awareness and involvement with children who commit delinquent acts.”
A compassionate justice? Don’t believe it.
Then there was Roberts’s participation in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld. In this case, Roberts “upheld President Bush’s creation of special military tribunals for trials of alleged terrorists,” wrote Stephen Gillers, David Luban, and Steven Lubet in the Los Angeles Times.
On the merits, that’s bad enough, since such tribunals violate the Geneva Conventions.
But procedurally it’s even worse. “While the case was pending in his court, Roberts was interviewing with high White House officials—including Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove—for a seat on the Supreme Court.”
That was unethical. But he was pleasing his masters.
Roberts may be the best legal mind the Republicans have to offer.
But that doesn’t mean the Senators are obliged to confirm him.
In the exercise of their constitutional duties to advise and consent, they’re within their rights to conclude that he’s too smooth by half, and too much of an ideological warrior. That’s what Roberts has been his entire adult life when you strip away all the layers of lawyerliness and polish.