July 21, 2005

Roberts Nomination: We Want to Know More

by Katherine Ragsdale,
Interim Excecutive Director, Political Research Associates

Traditional adversaries from across the political spectrum seem to have found two things on which they can agree: George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominee, John Roberts, is a competent jurist and a nice guy. These are more significant assessments than they may at first appear.

One assumes that by "nice guy" his colleagues don't mean that he's a good companion for a fishing trip or a picnic but rather that he's a professionally cordial, courteous man, respectful of the people around him. In these days of rapacious, winner take all, blood- sport politics, a little professional dignity and courtesy are certainly among the things this country needs. (Remember when our Vice-President not only saw fit to fling an unprintable epithet at a colleague while on the floor of the Senate but also announced he saw no reason to apologize? We'll concede that the epithet may be pardonable - who hasn't had the occasional "oh, did I say that out loud?" moment. - although we might still wish our ranking officials were possessed of enough generosity of spirit that they rarely even thought such things at one another. But the unwillingness to acknowledge that such behavior was inappropriate in any context and far beneath what should be the dignity of the US Senate, is unfathomable.)

PRA has long advocated the importance of civil civic discourse. If President Bush's nomination of John Roberts represents, even in small part, a desire to affirm some level of dignity and civility in public life then let us be among the first to applaud him for that.

Similarly, in an age when competence is too often sacrificed on the alter of ideology, the assertion of Roberts' competence by jurists and legal scholars from both sides of the aisle is noteworthy. Nonetheless, important though character and competence are, they cannot substitute for commitment to the principles and values on which this country was built and the application of those values and principles to our common life. The civil rights and protections affirmed and embraced by our courts and our people over the years are built on the bedrock of our Constitution and the democratic ideals it embodies, they represent the character and competence of our nation and they must be protected.

It is stunning and horrifying to see - in America -- that the basic civil rights and equity on which any functioning democracy depends are so precarious. Protections for workers, the elderly, the disabled, immigrants - those among us least able to defend themselves and most dependent upon the courts to assure some measure of justice and fair play for them; religious freedom; the right and ability of individuals to defend themselves and the environment from the bullying of big business; and the individual freedoms that make us who we are - the freedom to decide if and when to bear children, to have access to contraceptives and to abortions and to accurate and comprehensive information to help us make our decisions; the freedom to love and be loved and to build lives and homes with our beloved - all of these protections hang by a mere thread in our Supreme Court. (For a comprehensive look at each of these issues and the decisions that demonstrate their jeopardy we suggest People for the American Way's http://www.pfaw.org)

Roberts has argued that Roe should be overturned - when the case at hand had nothing to do with Roe. It has since been suggested that he was merely arguing his boss's position, not his own. We want to know more. In a recent decision he voted to uphold the Bush Administration's plan to try Guantanamo detainees by military tribunal. This leads us to wonder about his commitment to due process and the presumption of innocence. We want to know more. Character and competence notwithstanding, the strength, the character, of our nation depends on Justices who will treasure and protect the values on which it was built - liberty and justice for all.

The ball now is in the Senate's court. We applaud the President for choosing a nominee of character and competence. We now urge the Senate to exhibit character and competence of its own - to do its job with sober diligence. Ask the hard questions and require that they be answered. Refuse consent to any nominee who does not clearly demonstrate character and competence and an abiding commitment to the principles on which this nation is built.

The Rev. Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, Interim Executive Director of PRA, is an Episcopal priest and internationally known activist. She serves on the boards of NARAL Pro-Choice America and The White House Project. She was, for 8 years, the chair of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.


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