Roberts Vows to Honor Established Rulings
John Roberts has told Congress that, if confirmed to the Supreme Court, he would give strong weight to previous rulings in order to ensure stability. This has people on both sides of the abortion debate up in arms.
John Roberts says he will honor established Supreme Court rulings, telling a Senate committee that legal precedents are important to “promoting the stability of the legal system.” Liberal interest groups quickly criticized the high court nominee for failing to state whether he would uphold the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision.
In responses to a Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire, the 50-year-old federal appeals court judge addressed a wide array of questions, from his financial holdings and work history to political ties and judicial philosophy. In particular, the survey offered Roberts’ most current views on “judicial activism,” an area critical to gauging his stance on the 1973 Roe decision. “It is difficult to comment on either ‘judicial activism’ or ‘judicial restraint’ in the abstract, without reference to the particular facts and applicable law of a specific case,” Roberts writes in the 84-page disclosure, which the committee released late Tuesday.
“Precedent plays an important role in promoting the stability of the legal system,” he added. “A sound judicial philosophy should reflect recognition of the fact that the judge operates within a system of rules developed over the years by other judges equally striving to live up to the judicial oath.” At the same time, Roberts said that “judges must be constantly aware that their role, while important, is limited.” “They do not have a commission to solve society’s problems, as they see them, but simply to decide cases before them according to the rule of law,” he wrote to the committee, which will begin considering Roberts’ nomination on Sept. 6.
The Supreme Court is closely divided on the issue of abortion rights and other social issues, with retiring Sandra Day O’Connor, the justice whom President Bush selected Roberts to replace, often providing the swing vote. While previous court nominees have typically refrained from commenting specifically on Roe, liberal groups say the stakes are now too high to ignore.
“John Roberts’ lawyerly answers fall far short of the candor the American people expect,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which opposes Roberts’ nomination. “Even anti-choice Justices Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist respect precedent, but that hasn’t stopped them from explicitly saying they want to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
That’s why these things are farcical. It is an accepted part of the code of judicial ethics that nominees refrain from commenting on specific cases that might come before them. At the same time, the circus that surrounds public congressional hearings demands that Congressmen grandstand by trying to get answers to those questions, especially on the issue of abortion. The result is non-answer answers that satisfy no one.
Everyone agrees that stare decisis is an important principal of the Anglo-American legal tradition. If each case is decided in a vacuum, the system would be chaotic. On the other hand, courts make bad rulings from time to time, especially in cases decided by narrow margins. Some of the most lauded decisions in Supreme Court history are those that overturned precedent.