Justice Souter, after all, went on to side with the liberal justices in upholding Roe v. Wade, which established the constitutional right to abortion. In so doing, he became the poster boy for bad Republican judicial selection. Never again would social conservatives accept a candidate without a paper trail of rulings and arguments that spelled out his positions on the issues that matter most to them. The stakes were simply too high. This was conservative orthodoxy.
Now there is John Roberts. Despite occasional press reports about some uncovered document that purports to show that Roberts really is a conservative, his paper trail, like Souter's, is virtually non-existent.
Just like a decade ago, a President Bush and his men are saying, "trust me." And once again, religious conservatives are saying, "OK, we will." Tony Perkins, head of the influential Family Research Council, enthused that Roberts was a great choice, an "intellectually powerful man of character and integrity."
To be sure, there are signs that Roberts is the conservative he is promised to be. He argued for overturning Roe while in the Bush Justice Department. His wife has been active in Feminists for Life, a pro-life group, for years. White House insiders who have known him are confidently promising that he is "one of us." President Bush's admiration for him is evident.
But there are a lot of alarm bells as well. His Justice Department work didn't represent his views, they were simply the views of his client, the President of the United States. In fact, he has publicly stated that Roe is the "settled" law of the land. Conservatives were apoplectic a few weeks ago when Judge Edith Clement's name was floated as the rumored Supreme Court nominee, because she had stated the same thing during a confirmation hearing.
Looking at this nomination and the way that things are shaping up, it is hard to escape the feeling that the "no more Souters" vow has faded. John Roberts public record doesn't demonstrate him to be the kind of candidate conservatives have advocated for the past decade. He may well prove to be the anti-Souter; he may be a true stealth conservative. But the fact of the matter is that what we don't know about him outweighs what we do know.
Given these reservations and conservative vows to never again support a stealth nominee, why are most conservatives veritably drooling about Roberts?
Three small reasons and one big one.
Why Roberts owns a hanging chad
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Second, Roberts fought in the trenches for W. His role in the Florida recount may not have been massive but it was important. He advised Florida governor Jeb Bush on how to handle specific ballot matters. He worked with the Bush team. He was involved enough that he received one of the clear acrylic "Bush-Cheney Florida Recount Team" paperweights with a hanging chad encased. Yes, lots of people got them, but only people who really were part of the "team."
Third, Roberts has also worked with some of the most influential social conservative leaders for nearly two decades. Men like Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, which defends religious liberty, pro-life, and pro-family cases, have argued Supreme Court cases alongside Roberts. They will vouch for him, his wife's pro-life causes, and his personal faith and integrity. This kind of endorsement can't be underestimated especially because David Souter's primary champion was liberal New Hampshire Republican senator Warren Rudman.
But the big reason conservatives have signed on to the Roberts nomination is George W. Bush's own evangelical faith in Jesus Christ. As Jay Sekulow told me recently, "We know the president's faith is authentic, real, and complete. We know the kind of person he promised to deliver to the Supreme Court. We have absolute faith in him."
That one article of faith, more than any other, explains social conservative comfort with Judge Roberts. They believe that George W. Bush's evangelical Christian faith makes him one of them. He can tell a good conservative Christian when he meets one. James Dobson, the Focus on the Family founder, backed Roberts enthusiastically, a crucial development for the White House. And his support hinges, in no small part, on his own faith in the president's faith.
More than any president in recent memory, George W. Bush is comfortable talking about his evangelical faith. He talks about his personal relationship with Jesus. He credits God with turning his life around. When he looks evangelical leaders in the eye, he does so as one who knows Jesus. And when he hosts the National Day of Prayer every year in the East Room, he looks its leader, Shirley Dobson from Colorado Springs, Colorado in the eye and thanks her for her prayers.
This very real religious faith means something to his supporters. It means his credibility is unmatched. While they are obviously aware of his capacity to make mistakes, they are much more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt "as a brother in Christ."
Politically, this faith in Bush's faith has been amply rewarded. On issue after issue most important to religiously conservative political leaders, President Bush has come through. On embryonic stem-cell research, he took the pro-life stand by not allowing the destruction of more human embryos. On gay marriage, he stated plainly that he stood on the side of protecting heterosexual marriage, even if doing so required a constitutional amendment. And with his faith-based initiative he showed a rhetorical willingness to embrace religion as a solution for social problems.
And so, when President Bush promises to appoint someone in the mold of Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas to fill any high court vacancies, conservatives trust that he will.
It is a monumental leap of faith for them, because the Supreme Court has been the source of more anger and frustration for religious conservatives than any other single institution for the last generation. From banning school prayer to enshrining abortion as a constitutional right to legalizing homosexual practices, the court has been the bane of their existence. All the sex-filled, violence-laden, celluloid romps that Hollywood has ever produced combined don't add up to a single one of these court decisions.
And instead of being given a judge like Edith Jones or Michael McConnell or Janice Rodgers Brown who they know has a set jurisprudence like Scalia or Thomas, they are pinning their hopes on John Roberts in large part because their evangelical president has looked into Roberts' past, his heart, his mind, and his eyes and pronounced him the fulfillment of his promise. They will soon find out whether that faith was well placed.