Don’t start a war over this high-court nominee

The early consensus is that John Roberts is a competent, ethical and well-qualified nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Unless evidence arises to the contrary, Democrats and left-leaning special interest groups are well-advised not to start a political war over his confirmation – a war they would almost certainly lose.

Minutes after President Bush announced his choice Tuesday to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, supporters of abortion rights jumped on a brief Roberts presented as deputy solicitor general under the first President Bush. It read, in part, that “we continue to believe that (Roe vs. Wade) was wrongly decided and should be overruled.”

The arguments an attorney makes in court, however, don’t necessarily indicate how he would rule as a judge. Indeed, during his confirmation hearing in 2003 for his current seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Roberts called the landmark ruling establishing abortion rights “the settled law of the land. … There’s nothing in my personal views that would prevent me from fully and faithfully applying that precedent.”

Does that mean we know how Roberts would rule on a specific case? No. But it suggests that he respects the role of judicial precedent. Senators from both sides of the aisle can and should probe his legal philosophy in hearings that could begin as soon as next month.

Abortion-rights and other interest groups are geared up, financially and emotionally, for a fierce battle against Roberts. The airwaves figure to be filled in the coming weeks with warnings of impending doom to individual rights and the environment.

Cooler heads need to prevail in the Senate. Barring revelations that cast doubt on Roberts’ fitness for the court, moderate Democrats must live up to the agreement they made last month not to filibuster judicial nominees except under extraordinary circumstances. Pulling that trigger would surely backfire, prompting Senate Republicans to unite in killing judicial filibusters altogether. Roberts would be in, and Democrats would have lost any remaining leverage on future nominations.

It is more than a little disappointing that Bush declined to replace the high court’s first female justice with a woman. Racial minorities also remain underrepresented. If another seat opens on the president’s watch, women and minorities should be given top consideration.

For now, though, we appear to have a fully qualified nominee. May the confirmation process be guided by the respect and dignity it deserves.

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