John Roberts and a Judge of History

Lewis's prevalent role in the civil rights movement led him to question John Roberts's grasp of the struggle for the Voting Rights Act.
Lewis's prevalent role in the civil rights movement led him to question John Roberts's grasp of the struggle for the Voting Rights Act. (Byjason Reed -- Reuters)

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By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2005

John Roberts is well on his way to head the nation's judiciary, or so it's widely believed. Washington knows this in the manner that it knows such things: There's little left to do now but count the votes.

But yesterday, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the longtime legislator and civil rights icon, sat at the table before the Senate Judiciary Committee anyway. He sat along with other Roberts opponents -- Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and retired 6th Circuit Judge Nathaniel Jones, former general counsel of the NAACP.

Others had a seat at the table, too -- Jennifer Cabranes Braceras and Peter Kirsanow, both members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and supporters of Roberts, were among the day's 30 witnesses offering their views on the nominee.

The diversity before the microphones in Hart Room 216, stood in sharp contrast to the scene that's dominated the week's proceedings.

In this exercise in representative democracy, the 18 committee members are all white -- 17 men and one woman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). There have also been only a handful of people of color witnessing the proceedings, be they activists from the right or left, students or simply those who wanted to observe history.

"The nature of the Senate for most of its history has been an organization of white men," says Richard Baker of the Senate's historical office. "That's just a fact. No question about it."

Barack Obama, the newly elected Democratic senator from Illinois, is the only African American senator, the fifth in the nation's history. There have been only 18 people of color since its founding -- black, Latino, Asian or Native American. There have been only 33 women: 32 white, one African American.

"It still raises the whole issue of race and class in the very room," Lewis said later yesterday afternoon. "That we are still a society where minorities, people of color, they are not present, just not there. . . . They are not in a position to raise some of these hard and tough questions." And "that's why it is left on the shoulders of some of the progressive" whites in the Senate and other bodies, he said.

Public questioning of Roberts ended yesterday morning, leaving the ensuing testimony, pro and con, to be delivered to a dwindling audience. All of it is in the record, and the senators receive the statements. By the time the panel including Lewis was on deck, there were seven senators in the room, and few journalists.

Kirsanow and Braceras echoed Roberts's call for judicial restraint, with Braceras noting that the court "is neither the first nor the last word on civil rights."

Like Lewis, Jones and Henderson spoke of the special role the courts had played in expanding racial equality.

But it was Lewis's presence that offered the drama of history.


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