Special Report

Too White, Too Right

The left insists on a new litmus test for nominees like John Roberts.

By 8.24.05

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Leave it to the political left to treat a serious issue in a frivolous manner. The case in point is how liberals are now approaching the issue of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts's life experience. Instead of considering it as a way to determine Roberts's fitness for the job, they use it to score political points.

The past experiences of a Supreme Court nominee should be a matter of public scrutiny. Has he made choices that show sound judgment? Has he, in general, behaved ethically? How has he treated those around him? Has he ever been affiliated with any extremist groups like the Nazi Party or International A.N.S.W.E.R.? Such questions are fair game when it comes time to decide on a nominee. Sadly, those on the left are instead using Roberts's life as a proxy for politics. In so doing, they've turned the issue into something absurd.

For example, in an opinion piece masquerading as an objective news story, Associated Press reporters Tom Coyne and Ashley M. Heher suggest that Roberts's childhood might not have been sufficiently "multicultural:"

Like many towns across America, the exclusive lakefront community where Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. grew up during the racially turbulent 1960s and '70s once banned the sale of homes to nonwhites and Jews.

Just three miles from the nearly all-white community of Long Beach, two days of looting and vandalism erupted when Roberts was 15, barely intruding on the Mayberry-like community that was largely insulated from the racial strife of that era.

...That environment may have sheltered residents from the events of July 1970, when the arrests of three black men over a parking violation outside a bar in Michigan City set off two days of looting, vandalism and fires.

Naturally, this (lack of) experience must be linked to his views:

Roberts' criticism of racial "quotas" in some documents from his work as a White House lawyer has alarmed civil rights groups and some Democrats, who say he may be a partisan for conservative causes. Other memos from his time in the Reagan Justice Department portray an attorney who urged his bosses to restrict affirmative action and Title IX sex discrimination lawsuits.

Now, do we really want to hold it against a nominee that, as a child, he didn't get to see the windows on his family home being broken? Most parents, if they are able, try to raise their children in locales that are generally riot-free. If we are earnest about applying the must-experience-riot standard, we end up with the ridiculous result that most children growing up in America are henceforth disqualified from becoming Supreme Court Justices.

If Coyne and Heher are really serious about Roberts's exposure to racial issues, they might bring up the little fact that Roberts has spent the last quarter century living in the Washington, D.C. area. That means he endured the Marion Barry era, when a big city mayor played the race card to fight off any accusation of corruption and/or incompetence. That part of Roberts's life, we can suppose, was deemed unimportant by the liberal powers that be.

Coyne and Heher seemed to be following the lead of columnist William Raspberry, who last week took a similar tack. Raspberry extended the critique of Roberts to note that he is the son of a wealthy man, attended Harvard, clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, and worked in the Justice Department and White House. As a result, Raspberry states:

Nothing in that glide path suggests exposure to anything that might temper his conservative philosophy with real-life exposure to the problems and concerns of ordinary men and women. Roberts is undeniably bright...but his life has been one of quite extraordinary privilege.

"Glide path?" I always thought that most of Roberts's achievements took some hard work -- what do I know? Anyway, that glide path informs Roberts's politics:

He has been, virtually since his arrival in government, not just a counsel but an advocate of positions that, to civil rights partisans, for instance, seem well out of the settled mainstream.

He wanted, his memos confirm, to limit the reach of the Voting Rights Act, to do away with such race-conscious approaches as school busing and affirmative action, to curtail the application of Title IX to equalize opportunity for women, and to strip the Supreme Court of its ability to hear certain classes of civil rights cases.

Raspberry has indulged that leftist trope of the "personal is the political." Roberts's easy life is what makes him unsympathetic to the concerns of the "ordinary men and women."

This missive is really a low point for an otherwise a superb columnist. Raspberry avoids specifics to make these policies seem nobler than they are, such as saying Roberts sought to "limit the reach of Voting Rights Act" when what he really did was argue against racial gerrymandering. Also notice that Raspberry minimizes the controversial nature of these policies by claiming they are part of "the settled mainstream" for "civil rights partisans." For the likes of the Alliance for Justice, NAACP, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton, surely they are mainstream. Yet those aren't good yardsticks for measuring the "concerns of ordinary men and women." After all, busing elicited huge protests from the common folk, and affirmative action has been sent packing by a substantial majority of voters every time it has been on the ballot.

That Raspberry isn't really serious about Roberts's life experience is reinforced by looking at how he treated Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. After all, Thomas had plenty of exposure to real-life problems. He was born in a small town in Georgia. His father abandoned him when he was very young. When his mother was no longer able to care for him, he was sent to live with his grandfather. Yet, back in 1991, Clarence's biography didn't win plaudits from Raspberry:

[Thomas] wouldn't have been my choice. But then no one likely to be appointed by a conservative Republican president would be my choice. I believe the court is too conservative already -- too devoted to the privileges of authority and too uncaring about the rights of ordinary people, too wrapped up in governmental theory and too innocent of experience as outsiders in a society dominated by white men.

Given an unfettered choice, I'd opt for a liberal whose bona fides include a history of concern for the underdog.

From which we can conclude that life experience matters not. What matters is a nominee's ideology. The left doesn't really want to discuss Roberts's life experience as it applies to the requirements of the Supreme Court. They are hoping to derail his nomination by portraying him as too rich, too white, and too successful. But don't be fooled -- what they really mean is he is too conservative.

Sound judgment, good temperament, compassion -- all of that matters when considering a Supreme Court nominee. And all of that makes the life experience of a nominee a serious matter. Too bad the left doesn't treat it as such.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.