Springfield State Journal-Register

September 12, 2005 

Durbin urges Roberts to clarify positions on civil rights and privacy rights

By Dori Meinert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., turned to his former boss and mentor, the late Sen. Paul Simon, to help him evaluate John G. Roberts, who has been nominated to become the next chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

At Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's nomination hearing 12 years ago, Simon told her that she ultimately would be judged by history over one question - "Did you restrict freedom or did you expand it?"

"Judge Roberts, if you are confirmed as the first Supreme Court justice of the 21st century, the basic question is this - will you restrict the personal freedoms we enjoy as Americans or will you expand them?" Durbin asked in his opening statement at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Monday.

As Senate minority whip, Durbin is the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate.

On issues ranging from civil rights to privacy rights, Durbin urged Roberts to elaborate on his views, while Republicans said the nominee should avoid controversial topics.

Durbin said some of the memos that Roberts wrote while serving in the Reagan administration raise concerns about his views on civil rights and women's rights.

"So it is important that you give complete answers to the questions put to you about your views on civil rights, equality and the role of the courts in ensuring those protections," Durbin said.

Durbin hasn't said how he will vote on Roberts. Two years ago, he voted against Roberts when Roberts was being confirmed as a federal appellate court judge. Durbin, who supports abortion rights, complained then that Roberts was evasive on questions on abortion and other issues.

As the nomination hearings kicked off Monday, the National Right to Life Committee announced a radio ad campaign in eight Illinois cities, including Springfield and Peoria, that accuses Durbin of being unfair for suggesting that Roberts might be disqualified if he opposes the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion. The ads are running on two Springfield stations, WTAX-AM news radio and WFMB-FM station, and on WPEO in Peoria.

The ads note that Durbin opposed abortion in 1983 when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Durbin said the ads distort his position and that he has supported pro-life judges in the past.

"I have never suggested that abortion is a litmus test for my support of any nominee ... " Durbin said. "What I have said is that I could not support any nominee that did not acknowledge the existence of a right to privacy - the right for families and individuals to make the most intimate personal decisions about their lives in private, without government interference," Durbin said in a statement issued by his office.

"While my position on Roe vs. Wade changed many years ago, my view that the Constitution guarantees a zone of privacy free from government interference has not changed one bit," Durbin said. "In fact, my willingness to stand up for family planning is one of the things that caused the right-to-life community to turn against me long before I reconsidered my view of Roe vs. Wade."

After the hearing, Durbin told reporters that senators needed to probe Roberts aggressively because "we should know this man's core values and beliefs."

The senator, referring to memos written by Roberts during stints as an aide in Reagan and senior Bush administrations, said, "He must speak out where he stands. There are a lot of people who have serious misgivings about his nomination, based on those old memos."

Many Democrats and liberal interest groups have expressed alarm about Roberts' views as expressed in those documents. They fear that his past statements indicate misgivings about affirmative action, voting rights, the rights of women and the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that permits abortions.

When Roberts met privately with Durbin several weeks ago, Durbin said he gave him a copy of the book," Taming the Storm," a biography of federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, an appointee of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who received death threats for his pro-civil rights rulings.

During the hearing, Durbin also urged Roberts to model himself after another courageous judge - U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow of Chicago. Her husband and mother were murdered in her home by a deranged man upset that she had dismissed his lawsuit.

Earlier this year, Lefkow told the committee that the murders of her family members were "a direct result of a decision made in the course of fulfilling our duty to do justice without fear or favor."

Durbin said that's the only proper test for a Supreme Court justice.

"Will he 'do justice without fear or favor?' Will he expand freedom for all Americans as Judge Frank Johnson, a condemned judicial activist once did?' "

Copley News Service correspondent Finlay Lewis contributed to this story