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Groups weigh in on whether Senate should confirm Roberts

WASHINGTON—In a preview of the coming September clash over John G. Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court, a leading liberal organization announced its opposition to him Wednesday while the nation's top business lobby endorsed him.

The stands taken by, respectively, People for the American Way and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce represent the bookends in a tough ideological debate over the direction of American law after the departure of the court's crucial swing vote, Sandra Day O'Connor.

People for the American Way President Ralph Neas, who's played a leading role in judicial confirmation battles for three decades, said Roberts' views on legal issues ranging from civil rights to privacy were "extreme." He said his group and other liberal organizations would campaign to defeat Roberts in the Senate.

The Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, praised Roberts for his experience "advocating for the nation's leading businesses."

"Roberts has attracted broad, bipartisan support for his fairness, keen intellect, open-mindedness, and judicious practice of the law," said Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber's president and chief executive officer. "He is highly regarded and well respected by the legal and business communities."

Roberts will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 6 to begin what's expected to be at least a week of hearings on his nomination. His confirmation is assumed to be likely, unless new controversies emerge.

In the six weeks since President Bush nominated Roberts, disclosure of his legal advisories from his years in the Reagan administration show that he was a brash young conservative. His record also reveals a lawyer who isn't totally doctrinaire, however. For example, he once volunteered to perform legal work for a gay-rights group.

Perhaps most defining, his record supports his reputation as a skilled lawyer who weighs facts against the law and a conservative who favors a restrained judiciary that defers to the elected branches of government in setting policy.

In a 50-page report that focuses greatly on Roberts' tenure as a Reagan administration lawyer, People for the American Way portrays him as an active participant in Reagan-era attempts to restrict civil-rights laws. The report also argues that Roberts, currently a federal appellate-court judge, has shown a "broad and expansive view of presidential power."

Neas and People for the American Way have been prominent in past nomination fights. Neas played a lead role in 1987 when Robert Bork, whom President Reagan nominated to the Supreme Court, was defeated in the Senate after a bitter debate over culture and the Constitution that still angers conservatives.

Whether liberal-activist organizations can convince Democratic senators to vote against Roberts depends largely on their ability to rally opposition among voters. People for the American Way, for instance, opposed confirming John Ashcroft for attorney general in 2001 but the Senate approved him nonetheless.

Such groups are "strongest at influencing public opinion. They are less influential with senators," said Michael Gerhardt, who helped President Clinton shepherd Justice Stephen Breyer through confirmation in 1995.

Gerhardt suggested that Roberts' opponents, while calling for his defeat, may simply be laying down markers in anticipation of future Supreme Court vacancies during Bush's presidency. "It's doubtful they will defeat him," he said. "(But) they're saying, `If Roberts is not acceptable, then someone to his right clearly will not be acceptable.'"

Neas rejected suggestions that Roberts' confirmation appears assured.

"The conventional wisdom right now is that John Roberts will be confirmed, just as the conventional wisdom in 1987 going into the hearings was that Robert Bork would be confirmed," Neas said. "You never know what's going to happen at a hearing."

A well-organized coalition of conservatives is mounting an aggressive campaign on Roberts' behalf. On Wednesday, a group of conservative women voiced their support for him, countering objections from liberal women's groups who say he supports rolling back abortion rights.


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

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