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Bush's nominee for Supreme Court will likely set off a fight

WASHINGTON—Even to some in the Senate, the president's pick for the Supreme Court was a mystery Tuesday.

One Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, wore a befuddled look as he walked through the Capitol, scanning his BlackBerry for e-mailed insights and wondering aloud, "I don't know who he is. Do you know who he is?"

It was enough for some to suggest that Judge John G. Roberts Jr. was a "stealth nominee" whose real views on controversial issues such as abortion are unknown.

But if Roberts is a new name to many in the country, he's no stranger to the Bush administration or to the interest groups that have been amassing electronic dossiers for months on every possible nominee.

And with his choice, President Bush signaled that he means to shift the Supreme Court to the right, swinging it in a more conservative direction to match the will of the people as measured in their choices for the executive and legislative branches of government.

That's likely to set off an epic struggle between conservatives aching to influence the last branch of government beyond their control and liberals who've found their last bastion of power there.

The right rallied instantly to Roberts, all but breathing a sigh of relief that Bush hadn't gone with a less conservative candidate.

A conservative group called Progress for America, which has vowed to spend $18 million to support the nomination, called Roberts "terrific." Brian McCabe, the group's president, said he'd "defend Judge Roberts from the left's predictable and premeditated character assassination attempts."

The response from the left was split, more restrained in the Senate and more vocal outside.

Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean called the selection "disappointing," saying that instead of picking a nominee who'd unite the country, the president had selected someone with "sharp partisan credentials that cannot be ignored."

But Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., his party's leader in the Senate, said he wanted more information about Roberts. "I will not prejudge this nomination," he said.

One of the key points of contention will be Roberts' stand on abortion.

For weeks, conservatives had said loudly that they didn't want Bush to pick his old friend, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, because he was supportive of abortion rights. Throughout the day Tuesday, several voiced concern that Bush had settled on appeals court Judge Edith Brown Clement, considered soft on abortion. "Judge Clement gravely concerns us," said Troy Newman, the president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.

Where Roberts will come down on abortion cases wasn't clear, however. He once argued as a Reagan Justice Department attorney for overturning Roe v. Wade. But in his confirmation hearings for the federal bench two years ago he called Roe v. Wade "the settled law of the land" and said there was nothing in his views that would prevent him from "fully and faithfully applying that precedent."

He won confirmation to his appeals court judgeship on a 16-3 bipartisan vote in the Judiciary Committee and a voice vote in the full Senate.

Still, Democrats in the Senate and their allies questioned whether Roberts would act differently from the way he'd argued as a lawyer in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

"The Senate must learn whether he has clear consistent principles upholding constitutional standards like civil rights and the right to privacy in Roe v. Wade," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "These issues are in serious question if you take even a cursory glance at his record."

Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice, a coalition of liberal groups, said Roberts "helped craft legal policies that sought to weaken school desegregation efforts, the reproductive rights of women, environmental protections, church-state separation and the voting rights of African-Americans."

Ralph Neas, the president of the liberal group People for the American Way, called for close scrutiny of Roberts' record. Replacing retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor "with someone who is not committed to upholding Americans' rights, liberties and legal protections would be a constitutional catastrophe," he said.

True to form, Bush didn't take the easy course in naming Roberts. There's no doubt that picking a woman to replace O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the court, would have been easier. Even first lady Laura Bush had weighed in with a rare public comment that she'd like to see him name a woman.

And selecting someone with fewer public positions on controversial subjects, such as abortion, might have made it easier to finesse a nomination between the harsh edges of the political left and right.

But that isn't Bush, at least not most of the time. Going back on his oft-repeated vow to pick a true conservative for the court would have been more than a political gambit; it would have been seen as a betrayal to his base with little or no payoff from the opposition.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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