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.

Roberts Vows to Honor Established Rulings (AP)

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.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bryan says:

    Liberal interest groups quickly criticized the high court nominee for failing to state whether he would uphold the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision.

    So much for the “no litmus test” canard.

  2. Herb says:

    If Roberts wishes to “Honor” previous decisions, he is showing the American people that he has no backbone to reverse those decisions that were made “outside the Constitution” by liberals who love to make law from the bench. If he holds to this criteria, he has no place on the SCOTUS, and is like all lawyers who “stick together right or wrong.

  3. legion says:

    It’s always amused me that Congress isn’t supposed to ask ‘litmus test’ style questions. You know the President asks those kinds of questions when he decides on a nominee; why can’t Congress ask the same things? Can’t a Senator ask something like “Mr. X, what subjects did you discuss with the President and his advisors in regards to your candidacy?”

  4. Jim Rhoads (vnjagvet) says:

    Demonizing this will be impossible. Since demonizing is the only tactic successfully employed by the left, that makes opposition ineffective with this type of candidate.

  5. bryan says:


    One would think that the president doesn’t ask “litmus test” questions about abortion. Else how would half of the justices have made it to the court and then been such disappointments to the parties that appointed them (Blackmun, Breyer, O’Connor, Kennedy …).

    And if they asked, I’m almost certain that any competent jurist would have demurred in answering.