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John Roberts and a Judge of History
Civil Rights Icon John Lewis Takes A Seat, and a Stand

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.

"When I was growing up in rural Alabama," read Lewis, 65, "I saw those signs that said, 'White Men, Colored Men,' 'White Women, Colored Women.' I used to ask my parents, my grandparents, 'Why racism? Why racial discrimination?' And they would tell me, 'Don't get in trouble. Don't get in the way.' "

"As a participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, I decided to get in the way. I was beaten, arrested and jailed more than 40 times for peaceful, nonviolent protests against legalized segregation in the South."

He spoke about Hurricane Katrina and how it had exposed, with its images of mostly poor African Americans facing the aftermath of the storm in New Orleans, race and class remain great dividers.

"In 1965, Judge Roberts was only 10 years old. He may be a brilliant lawyer, but I wonder whether he can really understand the depth of what it took to get the Voting Rights Act passed," Lewis continued.

Voting rights and other issues such as the right to privacy (a key element in Roe v. Wade ) have been a focus of Democratic senators questioning Roberts. They have made it more than clear that they have not been happy with his responses.

Lewis knows how to count votes. He is aware of where Roberts may be heading in the coming days. And it didn't bother him at all that he was reading to an almost empty room. He also knows that the proceedings were televised.

"It is my hope that my testimony will give the senators, especially those who have not made up their mind, but even those who have made up their mind, some additional information, give them some food for thought."

"I don't buy this idea that during the time that Judge Roberts was a young attorney in the Reagan administration he was just doing his job and working for someone who believed one thing and he believed something else."

Lewis watched Roberts's questioning closely and found himself frustrated: "People wanted to know, they wanted to know how he felt. What is your overall feeling, what is in your heart?"

Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) asked Lewis how he felt about all that Roberts had said. After all, Roberts noted, at 50 he is not the man he was in his twenties.

But Lewis isn't convinced. Nor does it matter, he says, that he is not expecting to change history this time.

There have certainly been colleagues and activists who say, "Why get in the way? This wheel is already rolling. . . . Now he's going to be the chief justice. . . . You shouldn't say anything, you shouldn't get in the way."

But that just wouldn't be Lewis.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company