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Supreme surprises?

By Carlos Watson
CNN

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John Roberts, President Bush's choice for the U.S. Supreme Court.

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PALO ALTO, California (CNN) -- With his nomination of federal Judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court, President Bush seems to have made the safe choice: a Washington insider, a solid conservative with several key Democrats to recommend him, and an impressive Harvard pedigree.

Roberts will be subject to the normal poking and prodding in the run up to his Senate confirmation, but by most reasonable calculations, ultimately he will get at least 51 votes and win the confirmation.

But while Roberts' confirmation seems likely, politics is not always as predictable or as transparent as we think. (Just ask former presidential frontrunner Howard Dean or former President George Bush Sr.).

So as this seemingly predictable confirmation unfolds, keep your eye out for four potential surprises and/or intriguing angles:

Searching for Douglas Ginsburg

While the political left will point out key policy disputes, the reality is that in their efforts to derail Roberts, their best chance for success would likely involve a personal peccadillo, not a dispute on privacy policy.

For example, Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his nomination after admitting he had used marijuana, and Justice Clarence Thomas was narrowly confirmed in the shadow of Anita Hill's accusations of sexual misconduct against him.

While the White House has in all certainty already vetted Roberts and researched his past, every would-be Drudge Report will be working over time to find that needle in the haystack.

Indeed, in this tech-obsessed era, every blogger knows that to break such a story, or to uncover one sufficiently titillating detail, would put them on the media map instantly .

So while the public fight generally will be over policy (privacy, abortion, etc), the only real chance for a Democratic block of the confirmation lies in efforts that take place behind the scenes and inside the blogosphere.

The first 50-year justice

In an era in which wealthy people (Roberts, by the way, has a net worth of $3.8 million) with access to better health care, better nutrition and an overall higher standard of living, are increasing their life expectancies, what may one day be most memorable about Roberts, if he is confirmed, is that he may be the first 50-year term justice.

Potentially, he could serve twice as long as retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Roberts is 50 years old, and if fate, luck and his health allow it, it is conceivable that he could serve on the bench for a half century.

Significantly, if Americans grasped that reality, would they look at him (or any candidate) differently? And would the example of Roberts and other long-serving justices one day lead to a constitutional amendment to limit the life tenures of federal judges?

This baby boomer's tenure may one day raise some fundamental questions about the judiciary.

His kids

The most interesting personal aspect about Roberts may not be that he has tried many more Supreme Court cases than any circuit court judge in recent memory (39), but that he his joining the bench as the father of small children.

As former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara learned during the Vietnam War, and as Vice President Cheney learned with his daughter Mary, some (but definitely not all) public officials change their policy positions significantly because of what their children experience and reflect. If confirmed, Roberts will be the only justice with young children.

Roberts' elementary school-aged kids are yet to truly enter a world of outsourcing, downloadable music, new health care drugs, college admissions, and perhaps even greater diversity along racial, class and religious lines.

Will those experiences alter the conservative views of a very traditional Indiana-born man and, therefore, potentially help shape the laws of our land from file sharing on the Internet to affirmative action? It is certainly something worth watching.

A new coalition?

The biggest story of all may be that if Roberts is confirmed, he may surprise people on policy issues -- not by being more liberal than expected (a la Justice David Souter), but rather because he may shake up the old center-left versus center-right coalitions and create some new partnerships on the bench.

In particular, if confirmed, he could join with Justices Stephen Breyer and Souter to look at some less ideologically doctrinaire decisions on non-cultural issues from Internet file sharing to international business law to health care policy.

Breyer, Souter and Roberts have different political orientations, but each has led "pragmatic" Harvard-trained legal careers: Breyer was a professor and a Senate staffer; Souter was a longtime state lawyer and eventually New Hampshire attorney general; and Roberts could become the first big corporate law firm partner to join the Court.

If these three form a new centrist core on the Supreme Court, do not be surprised if we see new approaches to the law and the acceptance of different kinds of cases, from Internet issues to health care questions.

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