Despite a pedigree of consistent conservatism that has won him the favor of President George Bush, potential future decisions by Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. remain a mystery, Missouri legal experts and politicians said.
“There are still question marks and there are no guarantees,” said Rick Hardy, an MU political science professor and constitutional law expert with a past in Republican politics.
Little is known about the 50-year-old Roberts outside legal circles. He has only served as a judge for two years and has few written opinions about hot topics such as abortion rights, free speech and gay rights.
“The fact that he does not have a long set of opinions gives the president some cover,” in what are predicted to be contentious Senate confirmation hearings, Hardy said.
Hardy added, however, that Bush’s decision shows a focus on choosing a candidate compatible with Bush’s conservative political philosophy.
After widespread rumors that Bush would select a woman to replace the spot vacated by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman ever appointed to the high court, the selection of Roberts may have come as a surprise to some. Hardy sees it another way.
“In a world where we have become so increasingly polarized, with so many interest groups, it may not be surprising that he didn’t nominate” a woman or minority, he said.
Lana Stein, chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, said the decision to choose someone as young as Roberts could affect the Supreme Court for years.
“He could be there for 30 years or more on the Court,” Stein said.
Both Hardy and Stein saw Roberts as a strong conservative who will not necessarily tilt the court strongly to the right, but will affect it greatly.
“We’re going to see a lot less decisions go 5-4,” than we did with O’Connor, Stein said.
During Tuesday night’s announcement, President Bush said he selected Roberts because he did not want someone “legislating from the bench,” but, according to Stein, activism is hard for any judge to avoid.
Stein said that research shows Supreme Court justices tend to remain consistently liberal or conservative philosophically. She said most judges end up legislating based on their beliefs and the public response to their decisions usually depends on the current political environment.
As many presidents learn the hard way, the lifetime appointment of a Supreme Court justice can backfire. Justice Anthony Kennedy, also once considered a conservative, was nominated by President Ronald Reagan. Justice Kennedy is now considered a consistent liberal-to-moderate vote on the court.
In fact, Hardy said, one-fourth of all justices appointed never live up to the philosophical expectations of their nominating president.