Morning Report 9/5/05
Roberts's Rules

Rehnquist's timely death prevented a worse choice for chief justice

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Eric Draper/White House

Perp walk: Roberts and Bush on their way to the July 19 press conference at the White House

Unless it can be proven that John Roberts personally poked a hole in the 17th Street Canal levee last Monday morning, he'll likely be running the U.S. Supreme Court for the next 30 years. George W. Bush's handlers instructed the president to announce this morning that he's bumping up Roberts to chief justice of the United States to replace the man he once clerked for, the dead William Rehnquist.

If the Bush regime weren't beleaguered by its screw-up in New Orleans right now, the POTUS's keepers would have searched their zoo for a stranger creature than Roberts to take over for Rehnquist. But with Roberts's confirmation as associate justice looking likely and the increasingly rebellious country in no mood for another major battle, it was the smart political move to bump him up to his old boss's job.

No matter that Roberts is a conservative Republican who appears to be a firm believer in the rights of corporate citizens over human citizens. Or that, and as my colleague Nat Hentoff just pointed out in a pretty scary story, he seems to support unbridled presidential power. Roberts may still be a considerable improvement in some ways over Rehnquist, who was a hack Phoenix lawyer and venal GOP operative before donning the robes of justice.

As far as anyone knows, Roberts has never personally intimidated blacks and Latinos at voting booths, as Rehnquist did back in south Phoenix 40 years ago.

If Rehnquist hadn't died before Roberts's confirmation hearings, which were to start this week, Bush's handlers would have probably made a worse choice for chief justice — someone a lot dumber, more of a social conservative, and/or personally loyal to Bush. (FEMA's Mike Brown, whom Bush just singled out for praise — "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" — is probably too busy right now to take on the additional duties of chief justice of the United States.)

Compared with Bush loyalists like Brown and the arrogantly ignorant Alberto Gonzales, Roberts is a horse of another color. After all, even if Roberts does have a record as a corporate toady, he doesn't have the ardent support of the Christian right.

It's true that Roberts is a smart person who believes in the "states' rights" and "judicial restraint" malarkey that animates the hard-core right. But he doesn't appear to be the radical religious reactionary or duck-huntin' pal of Dick Cheney's that Nino Scalia is. In addition, even the recent ACLU report on Roberts, while critical of him, notes:

    Both as a judge and an advocate, Roberts has taken positions that are supportive of civil liberties and civil rights.

That in itself puts him a step above Rehnquist on either the evolutionary or "intelligent design" ladder.


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