The question of whether Judge John Roberts is qualified to be chief justice of the United States has been rendered moot by his performance in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. He is so obviously -- ridiculously -- well-equipped to lead government's third branch that it is hard to imagine how any Democrats can justify a vote against his confirmation.
Start with his intellect. This is a man whose knowledge of constitutional law goes well beyond his intimate familiarity with seemingly every Supreme Court decision. It is rooted in a thorough understanding of American history. He quotes Hamilton in the Federalist Papers not to show off his erudition but to buttress a point completely pertinent to current debates.
Next, his temperament. He has a quick wit, one that repeatedly disarmed even the prickliest of his questioners. You don't have to be an expert on reading "body language," as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma claimed to be, to see that he is perfectly comfortable in his own skin, immune to pressure.
What was most impressive to me was the depth of his appreciation of what it means to be a judge. It came through in many ways.
He said judges are not "automatons" but "bring our life experiences to the bench." But he quickly added that "the ideal in the American justice system is epitomized by the fact that judges -- justices -- do wear black robes, and that is meant to symbolize the fact that they're not individuals promoting their own particular views, but . . . doing their best to interpret the law, to interpret the Constitution, according to the rule of law."
His first mentor, appeals court Judge Henry Friendly, demonstrated "a total commitment to excellence in his craft at every stage of the process, just a total devotion to the rule of law and the confidence that if you just worked hard enough at it, you'd come up with the right answers," Roberts said. "He liked the fact that the editorialists of the day couldn't decide whether he was a liberal or a conservative."
His second model, Justice William Rehnquist, taught him "to try to write crisply and efficiently," and, more importantly, provided an example of collegiality and fairness when he later became chief justice.
From his study of history, Roberts said, he derived his understanding of the vital -- but limited -- role of the judiciary, the only part of the government whose legitimacy depends on its demonstration of self-restraint, since it is not subject to direct public control. "The Framers were not the sort of people, having fought a revolution to get the right of self-government, to sit down and say, 'Let's take all the difficult issues before us and let's have the judges decide them.' "
Finally, he said, his recent judicial service has deepened his sense of humility. "Part of that modesty has to do with being open to the considered views of your colleagues on the bench. I would say that's one of the things I've learned the most in the past two years on the Court of Appeals: how valuable it is to function in a collegial way . . . other judges being open to your views; you being open to theirs. They, after all, are in the same position you're in. They've read the same briefs. They've heard the same arguments. . . . If they're seeing things in a very different way, you need to be open to that and try to take another look at your view and make sure that you're on solid ground."
This is so far from the caricature of a conservative ideologue depicted by some of the interest groups that their attacks seem absurd.
Roberts grew up in privileged circumstances but repeatedly expressed his belief in the words "equal justice under law," which he noted are carved on the portal of the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, Democrats complained that he had not told them where he stands on particular causes of importance to those groups. As he properly said, to answer those questions on pending issues would be, in effect, to enter into "a bargaining process," to swap commitments in return for votes.
Roberts's only problem is that he has set a standard so high, it will be difficult for the next nominee to measure up.
If the Democrats are smart, they will not bow to their interest groups but instead will embrace this extraordinary nominee and challenge President Bush, who has at least one more vacancy to fill, to "send us another Roberts."