Springfield State Journal Register

September 23, 2005

Durbin, Obama oppose Roberts
Committee OKs Bush's nominee for chief justice


WASHINGTON - Illinois' two Democratic senators, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, on Thursday announced their opposition to the nomination of John Roberts for chief justice of the United States.

Durbin was one of five Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote Thursday against the nomination, which was supported by all 10 the panel's Republican.

The committee approved the nomination 13-5 and confirmation next week by the full Senate is considered certain.

Although Durbin hadn't previously announced how he would vote, his opposition wasn't a surprise. Two years ago, he voted against Roberts' confirmation as a federal appellate judge. Durbin complained then that Roberts was evasive on key issues, including abortion rights.

Obama went to the Senate floor late Thursday to announce that he, too, will oppose Roberts' nomination when it comes to the Senate floor.

When the Congressional Black Caucus announced its opposition to Roberts this week, Obama, the only African-American in the Senate, declined to take a position.

Thursday night, Obama said the decision "was not an easy one for me to make." He said he was impressed with Roberts when they met privately Wednesday.

"He did say he doesn't like bullies and has always viewed the law as a way of evening the playing field between the strong and the weak," said Obama, adding that it's a view he shares.

However, after reviewing Roberts' record, the first-term senator said "it is my estimate that he has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak."

"In his work in the White House and the solicitor general's office, he seemed consistently to side with those who were dismissive of efforts to eradicate the remnants of racial discrimination in our political process," Obama said. "In these same positions, he seemed dismissive of the concerns that it's harder making it in this world and in this economy when you're a woman rather than a man. ...

"I will be voting against John Roberts' nomination, although I do so with considerable reticence. I hope I'm wrong. ... I hope that he will recognize who the weak and who the strong are in our society, and I hope that his jurisprudence is one that stands up to bullies of all ideological stripes."

Just before Thursday's vote, Durbin announced his opposition, saying, "I will vote no, and I will pray that Judge Roberts will prove, as chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, that he has not only a great legal mind, but also an understanding heart."

Afterward, Durbin said Roberts left many of his questions unanswered.

"He was so cautious and so guarded and so unwilling to tell us the most basic things about his beliefs and values. This man is going to guide our court for generations. I just needed to know more before I gave him my vote," Durbin told reporters.

With the outcome virtually assured, senators of both parties appeared Thursday to be looking ahead to what may be the far more contentious nomination by Bush of a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a swing vote on the court. Unlike Roberts, a conservative who is replacing a conservative, O'Connor's replacement could shift the balance of power on the court to the right.

During the committee hearings, Roberts declined to answer some questions that raised issues he said might confront on the court.

That frustrated Democrats interrogating him about memos that he wrote as a young legal adviser in the Reagan administration and as deputy solicitor general under President George H. W. Bush. He has been sitting on U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia since 2003.

Democrats complained that some of the memos expressed skepticism or opposition to the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade giving women a right to seek an abortion, to affirmative action, and to women's rights. Civil rights groups remain concerned about his positions arguing for a limited approach to enforcing the 1965 Voting Rights Act when it was up for renewal in the early 1980s.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who voted against Roberts, observed, "Judge Roberts was such a good witness that everyone seemed to emerge from the hearing with a different view of what he actually said."

Leading off the debate, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee chairman and a long time defender of the Roe decision, said he was satisfied by Roberts' assurances that he would give great weight to court precedent in deciding whether to overrule earlier decisions.

Three of the committee's Democrats said voted for Roberts' confirmation. There were Sens. Herbert Kohl and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Joining Durbin and Schumer in opposition to Roberts were Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Joseph Biden of Delaware.

Durbin had been lobbied by interest groups on both sides.

The National Right to Life Committee last week announced a radio campaign in eight Illinois cities criticizing Durbin as unfair for suggesting Roberts was unqualified if he opposed Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion. Durbin denied using abortion as a litmus test.

Earlier this week, a coalition of Illinois civil rights, labor and women's groups urged Durbin in a letter to oppose Roberts because of his "long and appalling" record on civil, voting, women's and privacy rights.