Judge John Roberts is a white male who has spent his entire adult life in Washington. Those facts themselves mean nothing, but they do beg a question: What could be so compelling about Judge Roberts as a Supreme Court candidate that the White House was willing to forswear all claims on ethnic diversity and all geographical political advantage, not to mention the express desire of Laura Bush and countless other women to see a nominee of their gender?
To understand Judge Roberts’s unique appeal, forget for a moment “conservative,” “textualist,” “original intent” and the other shorthand with which get-ahead Republican law school grads watermark their résumés. Look instead at a single case decided by Judge Roberts and two other members of the DC Court of Appeals less than a week ago. As it happened, the day before that ruling was released, President Bush interviewed Judge Roberts at the White House. Judge Roberts, it is widely reported, aced his interview; but his appeals court decision due for publication just twenty-four hours later–about the rights of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay–was, in effect, the essay question.
Here is the question: Do the obligations of the Geneva Conventions apply to prisoners seized in Afghanistan? And can the President convene military trials, unreviewable by any courts and Congress? The case involves Salim Ahmed Hamdan, allegedly a driver for Osama bin Laden, captured on the post-9/11 battlefield and held in Camp Delta. Last year a federal judge shut down Hamdan’s trial and up to a dozen other military tribunals. As convened by the Pentagon, those drumhead tribunals, wrote the lower court, amounted to a violation of the Geneva Treaty and an unconstitutional seizure of power by the President.
Whatever Judge Roberts’s performance in his interview with the President, whatever his sterling report card as litigator and jurist, we can be sure there was only one acceptable answer to the Guantánamo essay question, and the judge gave it. He voted, along with his two appeals court colleagues, all three of them Reagan or Bush appointees, against Geneva Convention protections for Guantánamo captives, in scathing language ordering the military tribunals forward, empowering the President, and the President alone, to determine those prisoners’ fate.
More than anything else, to fill Sandra Day O’Connor’s seat on the Supreme Court, the Bush White House sought an advocate for ever-expanding executive branch powers. With a raft of antiterrorism and Patriot Act cases in the judicial pipeline, seeking relief from federal laws and international standards on interrogation, torture and the treatment of prisoners, the Bush Administration badly needs a friend like Roberts on the Supreme Court–a friend who shares its view that the President’s authority in the “war on terror” is above judicial review, and counts more than acts of Congress or international treaties. In other words, if you like the Patriot Act and Guantánamo, you’ll love John Roberts.
Roberts started his career as a protégé of Justice Rehnquist. The Chief Justice’s distinctly activist vision–of conservative means of expanding the authority of presidents while stripping back federal regulations on business and civil rights–shaped Roberts’s views. Then Roberts spent years embedded in the executive branch, arguing cases in the Supreme Court on behalf of the Reagan and first Bush Administrations’ efforts to promote school prayer, restrict abortion and punish flag desecrators.