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For all his credentials, what is initially most striking about John Roberts is not the nominee himself, but the person he would replace. From abortion to affirmative action, capital punishment and federal power, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s role on the court was special, casting many decisive votes in politically charged cases. Her reasoning could frustrate colleagues and critics, because it was sometimes multifactor to the point of vagueness and fact-specific to the point of idiosyncrasy. Yet O’Connor often struck a tone of compromise that matched the national mood. She voted for broad federal power, but within limits; affirmative action, but not often; reproductive freedom, but not always. Those same moderate tendencies that made O’Connor unpredictable also led to decisions that satisfied many Americans. Regardless of whether O’Connor’s populist instincts grew from her personality, legislative experience or upbringing, Roberts is in many ways her opposite. Unlike O’Connor, his career is that of a consummate Washington lawyer: Supreme Court clerk, government attorney, appellate advocate and federal judge. Roberts’ political conservativism animated his service under Reagan’s White House and the elder President Bush’s solicitor general. Also unlike O’Connor, Roberts was a Beltway bureaucrat, who never earned his keep in the tumble of elected politics. Instead, he rose to the top ranks of appellate lawyers (unsurpassed by any justice in 50 years save Thurgood Marshall), and argued 39 Supreme Court cases, many before the current nine justices. Roberts’ confirmation hearings may show how his career matches his character, jurisprudence and likely impact on the court. As an appellate advocate, he is accustomed to answering hard questions, and he has amassed impressive communication skills. With minimal oratory or drama, he listens carefully and answers with a respectful, unrehearsed, cautiously effective manner. Poised but not pretentious, brilliant but not overbearing, confident but not dismissive, it could be said that those who first meet Roberts tend to like him, but even more, they respect what he says. Some of these skills probably stem from Roberts’ nature, but his practice in the Solicitor General’s Office and private appellate litigation has led him to mastery. At the Justice Department, Roberts worked daily with “career lawyers” of all political stripes, and his arguments in the Supreme Court often required him to work for Justice John Paul Stevens’ vote as much as Justice Antonin Scalia’s. Indeed, he has spent decades of his professional life seeking to persuade those who are disinclined to agree with him. If Roberts is confirmed, his experiences should be useful to him and to the court. First, his familiarity with the court, its docket and its members will ease transitions, such that joining the court should offer few surprises. Roberts would also enter the court in an esteemed position for a “junior justice.” In case after difficult case, he has stood only yards from his would-be colleagues, meeting their toughest questions with crafted words and an unflappable demeanor. Consequently, the current justices already respect Roberts as a lawyer, thinker and writer; such respect would only grow for Roberts as a colleague. Adding Roberts would also boost the court’s degree of principle and reasoning. Appellate lawyers succeed by describing cases as interactive sets of rules, exceptions, warrants and conclusions. Such habits are already manifest in Roberts’ work on the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia; his contributions to conferences, memoranda and opinions would almost certainly help the court wade through the complex (largely apolitical) statutory interpretation that forms the bulk of its docket. The balance may be lost Notwithstanding Roberts’ virtues, many of us worry about his nomination because his constitutional conservatism may lead him and the court to politically extreme results. And in some cases, results matter most. Poor Southern women can’t travel for abortions, capital defendants can’t avoid flawed prosecutions, voters can’t unrig districts and terror detainees can’t escape abuse. Such people need help from the Supreme Court, not just nice analysis, and many fear Roberts as someone who could lurch our long-teetering court to the right, destroying the balance O’Connor helped preserve. The inherently unsatisfying reality, of course, is that such risks accompany lost elections. Our conservative president and Congress have decried judicial moderation like O’Connor’s as undesirable, and although “We the People” may someday rue that trend, current leaders do not. Nevertheless, aside from Roberts’ politics and demographics, he is the kind of talented, skilled, well-tempered nominee that the left should covet. And if his conservative constitutional principles, combined with a willingness to write them into law, spark concern about the public’s future, the remedy must come from the public-from us. Craig Green, a former Bristow Fellow at the Solicitor General’s Office, is an assistant professor at Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law.

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