By Dana Milbank
Friday, September 16, 2005
John Lewis, legend of the civil rights movement and Democratic congressman from Georgia, was giving it his all before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday afternoon. "I fear that if Judge Roberts is confirmed to be chief justice of the United States, the Supreme Court would no longer hear the people's cries for justice," he pleaded.
Lewis's testimony was passionate, poignant -- and pretty much irrelevant to the outcome. Only four of the committee's 18 senators were on hand for much of his testimony; Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) could be seen consulting his wristwatch. Of the 120 seats in the press gallery, 104 were unoccupied. And dozens of seats reserved for the public went unoccupied.
Skipping the final session, committee members Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) gave a news conference outside the hearing room. The pair found themselves talking mostly to camera crews, as a couple of reporters half-listened. "Questions?" Brownback asked.
As witnesses gave their views for and against the man who will almost certainly be the next chief justice, one thing was clear: John G. Roberts has no Anita Hill. In 20 hours of questioning that ended yesterday morning, Democrats were unable to bloody the nominee significantly. With Republicans in possession of enough votes to confirm Roberts -- and no skeleton peering from the nominee's closet -- the fourth and final day of hearings into Roberts left the firm impression that senators were just going through the motions.
As Democrats proceeded through their final round of questioning, the Republicans did not conceal their boredom. Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) yawned. Brownback closed his eyes and rubbed his brow. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) let out a big yawn and fixed his hair. Five GOP staffers shared a joke, then passed a note to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), who read it, looked over at the Democratic side and chuckled.
As Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) wrapped up his questioning of Roberts, he listed a number of documents he wanted included in the record.
"Mr. Chairman, if those items could be entered in the record?" Feingold asked of Specter.
In the chairman's seat, Specter sat, scribbling or doodling, unaware that all eyes were on him to grant the routine request.
"Mr. Chairman?" Feingold said again.
This roused Specter from his reverie. "Yes?" he asked, looking up, and then he finally mustered "Without objection, so ordered."
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a stalwart supporter of Roberts, skipped most of the afternoon session. Instead, this distinguished committee member distributed laminated cards labeled "Crying Wolf Bingo" with words such as "Ideologue!" "Partisan!" "Far Right!" "Zealot!" "Extremist!" An accompanying news release chronicled "the sad history of attacks against previous nominees."
In the hallway outside the hearing room, the scene had the feel of open-microphone night at a karaoke bar, as liberal and conservative lobbyists lined up in front of two idle television cameras to give their views. It wasn't clear whether any of the footage -- filmed by C-SPAN and a pooled network camera -- would ever see the airwaves.
Among the appearances most of the senators missed:
Roberts friend and legal partner Kathryn Webb Bradley, calling herself a Democrat who didn't support President Bush in either election, said she felt "confident entrusting my own rights and those of my children and their generation to John Roberts for safekeeping."
On the other side, Roderick Jackson, a high school girls basketball coach from Alabama, spoke of how a 5 to 4 Supreme Court ruling saved his job after he was fired for complaining about unequal treatment of girls. "A shift in even one vote would have left me without any remedy," he said.
The thing that seemed to alarm Democrats was not Roberts himself or his writings but the fact that ideologues on the right love him so much. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) held a news conference during the afternoon hearing and waved "publications from conservative journals" assuring conservatives that they should be "secure in knowing they have a true soul spirit with this nominee."
At times yesterday, the hearing took a promising turn, as when Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pleaded with Roberts to say whether he would be a Felix Frankfurter, a William Rehnquist or an Antonin Scalia.
"I think if you've looked at what I've done since I took the judicial oath; that should convince you that I'm not an ideologue," Roberts replied. "And you and I agree that that's not the sort of person we want on the Supreme Court."
It was a powerful moment -- while it lasted. Cornyn broke in to criticize Democrats' demands for more Roberts papers. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) started talking about Paris Hilton's telephone records. Graham requested time to denounce the views of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's views on prostitution.
And, with that, Specter put an end to the questioning of Roberts.