Stop the Roberts Bombing

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, August 12, 2005

Can we please come up with a better way of arguing about Supreme Court nominees?

Fellow liberals, face it: The advertisement created by NARAL, the abortion rights group that opposes John Roberts's nomination to the Supreme Court, is outrageous. It ties Roberts to people who bombed abortion clinics. If this isn't guilt by association, I don't know what is.

Here's what the ad says: "Seven years ago, a bomb destroyed a women's health clinic in Birmingham, Alabama." The ad then quotes Emily Lyons, whose clinic was bombed in January 1998: "When a bomb ripped through my clinic, I almost lost my life. I will never be the same." The announcer returns: "Supreme Court nominee John Roberts filed court briefs supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber." Text on screen: "Roberts filed court brief supporting clinic protestors." Lyons again: "I'm determined to stop this violence so I'm speaking out." The announcer: "Call your senators. Tell them to oppose John Roberts. America can't afford a justice whose ideology leads him to excuse violence against other Americans."

You can consult, a Web site run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania -- not a haven for the right-wing conspiracy -- to find out all that is wrong with the ad. Just consider: Roberts filed the brief in question on behalf of the United States government (i.e., the administration of President Bush's father) in the spring of 1991, seven years before the Alabama clinic was bombed . The brief did not support clinic bombings. There is a difference between "bombers" and "protesters," as any civil libertarian knows. The Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, sided with Roberts's interpretation, and Congress then, rightly, passed a federal law aimed at preventing violence against abortion clinics.

Let's give NARAL all the benefits of the doubt here. The group has every right to disagree with the stand that Roberts and the first Bush administration took on this question. A lot of other people disagreed, including Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her dissent. Roberts's views on women's rights, which entered into his interpretation of the law in this case, matter. And whether anyone likes it or not, where Roberts stands on Roe v. Wade is a central concern to people on both sides of this battle.

One other point: I'm among those who have criticized liberals for a reluctance to stand up and fight the Bush administration and the right wing. NARAL's defenders could say that the organization is simply being as tough on the right as the right is on the left. In the current climate, the argument goes, only a really harsh attack (the Swift Boat Veterans' attack on John Kerry comes to mind) can force the public and the media to pay attention to issues that would otherwise go unnoticed. The very fact that I am writing this column, unfriendly as it is, can be taken as a sign of NARAL's success.

But if all this is true, why were so many liberals upset by this ad -- some publicly, many privately? It is not, I would submit, because they are wimps. Rather, the over-the-top suggestion that Roberts is someone who would "excuse violence against other Americans" is a distraction from the core issues surrounding his nomination.

"The ads, whether they come from the right or the left, are beside the point," said Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who sponsored the bill to protect abortion clinics from violence. "The issue is: What are Roberts's views?"

That, in turn, is why the administration is wrong to resist the release of all documents that would illuminate Roberts's career as deputy solicitor general from 1989 to 1993. Most of what we know so far comes from documents reflecting his views as a scrappy, twentysomething conservative. What are his more considered views -- for example, on women's rights, civil rights, disability rights?

Precisely because he has such a thin record of public writings, Roberts himself has an obligation to be forthcoming in answering questions about his views, especially on cases that have already been decided. The debate over Roberts should be civil. But you cannot have a civil debate on "the issues" if Roberts's supporters insist that "the issues" cannot be discussed and that he is perfectly free to decline any exploration of his outlook on important matters that will face him as a justice.

So let's embrace a Civility Compact: Roberts and the administration will agree to be more open about the issues that matter, so that phony issues and distortions will be left by the wayside, where they belong. Any takers?

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