Prof expected Roberts to be confirmed with ease

by Mark Remme

The United States and the University community witnessed the beginning of new era of Supreme Court leadership Thursday as John G. Roberts Jr. was introduced as the 17th chief justice of the United States.

The Senate confirmed President George W. Bush’s nomination to replace the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist with a 78-22 vote. The votes in favor of the nomination included all 55 Republican seats, 22 Democrats and one independent.

While a unanimous Republican vote was expected, it also wasn’t surprising that 50 percent of Democrats voted for confirmation, said University law professor David Stras.

“I was not surprised that Roberts received the vote that he did,” Stras said. “I expected him to get between 75 and 80 (votes).”

Stras said he sees Roberts’ appointment as an influential moment in Supreme Court history.

“My generation grew up under the Rehnquist court,” Stras said. “It’s hard to envision the court without him.”

The move marks the first chief justice confirmation since Rehnquist’s appointment in 1986 and the first Supreme Court appointment since President Bill Clinton appointed Stephen Breyer in 1994.

Only John Marshall – appointed as chief justice in 1801 at the age of 45 – has been appointed at a younger age than the 50-year-old Roberts.

Roberts’ relative youth means his stint could extend to a 25- to 30-year period, making this appointment one that could last longer than previous chief justice tenures, Stras said.

Speculation ensued early in Roberts’ nomination due to his age.

Roberts has no experience as a member of the Supreme Court, but Stras said that doesn’t warrant concern.

“There will be a steep learning curve,” Stras said, “but two of the past three chief justices have come from off the court.”

Chief justices Earl Warren and Warren Berger, the two chief justices prior to Rehnquist, both were appointed from outside the Supreme Court panel, Stras said.

Concerns about Roberts’ Catholic background have sparked questioning on whether he will change the dynamic of the court toward conservative stances on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriages.

Joel Johnson, University Law School graduate and former president of the student group Law School Republicans, said he doesn’t see religion as a big issue for the court.

Roberts is a bright individual and understands the role of the court, he said.

“As long as he remains faithful to his pledge (to interpret the law strictly from the Constitution), his faith should not have bearing on his opinions,” Johnson said.

Nico Kieves, president of the Law School Democrats student group, ratified Johnson’s sentiments.

Religious background should not play a major role in Roberts’ tenure, she said.

“Chief Justice Roberts is impeccably credentialed for the job,” Kieves said.

The bigger issue for those who oppose the appointment, she said, is that Roberts has seen a relatively low number of opinions during his tenure on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, when compared with other judges.

“It’s hard to tell, realistically, what his judicial style is,” she said.

Stras said the way Roberts conducts his panel of Supreme Court justices is yet to be seen.

The biggest change between the Rehnquist court and the ensuing Roberts court that could come to the forefront is if he increases the number of cases, the dynamic of the court, and if he shifts the panel more to the right, Stras said.

Roberts spent time from 1980 to 1981 as a law clerk under Rehnquist when Rehnquist was an associate justice. Stras said he expects Roberts’ demeanor to be similar to Rehnquist’s.

Issues of potential change could lie in partial-birth abortion and affirmative action – issues holding a present 5-4 decision – Stras said.

Roberts was initially nominated by Bush to replace Sandra Day O’Connor, who announced in July her retirement.

O’Connor’s position, left vacant after Roberts was later appointed to fill Rehnquist’s seat, is expected to be filled within the next few days, Stras said.

O’Connor was known as a swing voter, casting deciding votes on contentious issues.

“Roberts’ appointment will keep a balanced court (in comparison to Rehnquist’s),” Kieves said.

The more important question, she said, is who is going to replace O’Connor.