Groups Build Their Cases on Nominee

To confirm or not to confirm?

For some political groups, that is indeed the question as Judge John G. Roberts Jr., nominated by President George W. Bush to be the 17th Chief Justice of the United States, faces the test of his career on Capitol Hill.

Such a reality was evident last week at a rally in front of Sen. Arlen Specter's Center City offices, where protesters urged the Pennsylvania Republican to be tough on the jurist who just two years ago sailed through the Senate for a seat on the federal circuit court bench.

But now, the series of speakers reminded Specter – the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who on Monday opened Roberts' confirmation hearings – the judge is slated to occupy the highest office of the highest court in the land.

"What is Roberts' record?" questioned Lauren Townsend, whose Citizens for Consumer Justice sponsored the Sept. 8 afternoon rush-hour gathering at Sixth and Arch streets.

She then hoisted up a box marked with the words "Top Secret," and castigated Bush for refusing to release memorandums and other documents Roberts wrote while he was a White House lawyer.

"The Bush administration has decided that what's in this box, we can't see," declared Townsend, visibly angry, in a booming voice. "Show us the documents!"

'The Values of All Americans'
But for all of the unity displayed at the rally, some of those in attendance wanted Specter – and as many senators as possible – to vote Roberts down; others appeared to be satisfied with only a tough round of questioning on such divisive issues as a woman's right to an abortion, the detention of foreign combatants, America's racial divide, and the separation of church and state.

Dayle Steinberg, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, warned that the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion stood in jeopardy, but stopped short of calling for Roberts' defeat.

On the other hand, Rev. Robert Shine, former president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, condemned Roberts as a far-right idealogue beholden to the most conservative of religious and business interests in Washington.

"We need a Supreme Court that reflects the values of all Americans," he said. "Mr. Specter, your constituents are in opposition to any support you are planning to give."

Specter, however, signalled on Monday that he would withhold judgement until the hearings' conclusion, expected later this week. In his questioning of Roberts on Tuesday, which focused on the judge's views on abortion, the senator challenged him on his willingness to defer to or overturn past Supreme Court decisions.

"Precedent plays an important role in promoting stability and evenhandedness," said Roberts, according to a transcript of the hearings prepared by Congressional Quarterly. "It is not enough that you may think the prior decision was wrongly decided."

In an interview on Tuesday, Steinberg characterized the exchange as decidedly ambiguous, and said she had no doubt in her mind that Roberts – given the chance – would vote to roll back some protections offered women seeking abortions.

For instance, she explained, in October the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to a lower-court ruling that if a state enacts a law requiring parental notification before a teenager can get an abortion, it must provide an exception for the girl's health. She predicted Roberts would vote against such health exceptions.

Nevertheless, Steinberg emphasized that Planned Parenthood has shied away from fully opposing Roberts, even while other pro-choice groups, such as the National Council of Jewish Women and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, have come out against the nomination.

"We're trying very hard to not rush to judgement, but as the layers of the onion get peeled back, our concern has increased," said Steinberg. "I think that he's being predictably evasive."

The time to reach a decision is quickly drawing to a close. Roberts' nomination could be sent to the full Senate as early as next week and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said he wants a vote no later than Monday, Sept. 26.

That leaves organizations like NCJW and the Rabbinical Council of America – each have taken opposite positions on Roberts – vigorously advocating on either side of the debate.

Phyllis Snyder, president of NCJW, said on Tuesday that her group is encouraging discussions at the grass-roots level between citizens and senators.

"The crux is that we're looking for a Supreme Court that will protect fundamental freedoms for all Americans," she said. "[Roberts'] record shows a hostility to these rights. He's going to sit on this court for the next three decades, so we're talking about our children's children here."

At the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox congregations in the United States, Rabbi Dale Polakoff, the group's president, said that Roberts would work to affirm the right of Americans to freely practice their religion.

"We will be endorsing Judge Roberts," said Polakoff, who is scheduled to testify at the Senate hearings on Thursday.

The rabbi then predicted a Roberts victory: "They say that prophecy in our days is only for fools and children. I'd like to count myself in neither group, but I do believe that Roberts will be approved."

Steinberg, too, conceded that Roberts will likely replace Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died just two weeks ago. She said that she has already turned her focus to another Supreme Court question.

"The real challenge now is to see who Bush nominates for Sandra Day O'Connor's position," she said, referring to the retirement of the Supreme Court justice. "I think we all expect that Roberts will be confirmed, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be asked tough questions."