WASHINGTON – As Supreme Court nominee John Roberts (search) left his Senate confirmation hearings Thursday, Act Two of a ritualistic process began — witnesses from special interest groups began their analyses of the chief justice candidate.
"All evidence indicates that Judge Roberts would use his undeniable impressive legal skills to bring us back to a country that most of us wouldn't recognize, where states' rights trump civil rights, where the federal courts or Congress can see discrimination, but are powerless to remedy it," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Complaints about Roberts' civil rights record related to his work for the Reagan administration, and they echoed opposition to previous Republican high court nominees.
When Justice Lewis Powell, now regarded as a court moderate, was nominated in 1971, a prominent civil rights attorney denounced "his record of continued hostility to the law, his continued war on the Constitution."
When the recently deceased Chief Justice William Rehnquist (search) was nominated to the high court that same year, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights warned that "the foot of racism is placed in the door of the temple of justice."
Aside from civil rights activists, Roberts on Thursday also faced opposition from liberal women's groups who questioned his commitment to legalized abortion and other women's rights.
"What we see from the record and from his testimony, is that he has been restrained in protecting individual rights and freedoms, but unrestrained when he has been seeking to narrow them. And that is what led the National Women's Law Center to oppose his confirmation," said Marsha Greenberger, co-president of NWLC.
A long line of Republican court nominees, including Justice John Paul Stevens, now seen as a moderate, encountered similiar hostility from women's groups.
In 1975, the National Organization for Women expressed "grave concern" because Stevens carried "a record of consistent opposition to women's rights."
Justice Anthony Kennedy received much the same treatment with the then-named National Abortion Rights Action League, which in 1987 branded him a "deeply disturbing candidate."
Republican nominee David Souter, a justice now celebrated by liberals and scorned by conservatives, withstood even harsher criticism.
NOW predicted Souter "will be the fifth vote" to overturn Roe v. Wade (search), the case that legalized abortion nationwide. NOW at the time predicted "the underworld will flourish with back alley abortion butchers and women will die."
NARAL said of Souter: "If confirmed, Judge Souter would destroy 17 years of precedent and cast the deciding vote to overrule Roe versus Wade."
This history prompted Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah to ask Greenberger on Thursday if the group had ever supported a Republican Supreme Court nominee.
"I don't think we have," was the response.
Civil rights and women's rights groups say this history merely reveals consistent advocacy for their beliefs, not knee-jerk reactions to Republican nominees. They also say the scrutiny and public criticism alerts and sensitizes nominees to the concerns of millions of Americans who didn't vote for the president who nominated them.