Goodwin Liu Was Right About John Roberts
by Jonathan Singer, Fri Mar 05, 2010 at 12:25:58 PM EST
National Review blogger Ed Whelan, who has been leading the right wing attack effort against President Obama's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Goodwin Liu (my professor at Berkeley Law), doesn't like what Professor Liu had to say about then-nominee John Roberts.
Goodwin Liu’s Cheap Attack on the Roberts Nomination
Three days after President Bush announced his nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, Berkeley law professor (and new Ninth Circuit nominee) Goodwin Liu published an op-ed against Roberts’s nomination. According to Liu, “Roberts’s record is cause for concern,” and “[h]is legal career is studded with activities unfriendly to civil rights, abortion rights, and the environment.”
Whelan goes through and tries to mince Liu's words in an effort to try to undermine his nomination to the Court of Appeals. But where Whelan's post is wholly lacking is in the recognition that Liu was entirely correct in his estimation of the type of Chief Justice John Roberts would be.
Let's just look at the issue of Civil Rights, an area in which some of the most profound decisions of the Roberts era have occurred. In the case of greatest note, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts in effect gutted the heart of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of a half-century earlier with a majority so razor-thin that it evaporated into a plurality in part (that is, only part of Chief Justice Roberts' opinion garnered majority support; the rest was joined only by three other Justices, with the remaining five unwilling to sign their names). Here's Jeffrey Toobin writing about the decision in The New Yorker:
In the most famous passage so far of his tenure as Chief Justice, Roberts wrote, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
Roberts's opinion drew an incredulous dissent from Stevens, who said that the Chief Justice's words reminded him of "Anatole France's observation" that the "majestic equality" of the law forbade "rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread." For dozens of years, the Court had drawn a clear distinction between laws that kept black students out of white schools (which were forbidden) and laws that directed black and white students to study together (which were allowed); Roberts's decision sought to eliminate that distinction and, more generally, called into question whether any race-conscious actions by government were still constitutional. "It is my firm conviction that no Member of the Court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today's decision," Stevens concluded.
What Roberts did here, as Justice John Paul Stevens suggests, was make new law in restricting the ability of the government to address Civil Rights in the class room, in doing so turning on its head the thrust of Brown.
To take a more recent example, the Roberts Court, by a similar 5 to 4 margin, fundamentally altered Civil Rights law in the area of employment in Ricci v. DeStefano, a case you may recall from the confirmation hearings of then-nominee Sonia Sotomayor. In that case, the Court made new law -- or as Chuck Todd put it, the majority "legislated from the bench" -- to hold it impermissible for the New Haven fire department to have altered its policy of promoting firefighters when faced with the potential of a successful suit alleging that the promotion policy, as applied, violated Title VII employment discrimination law.
I have not followed closely enough the Roberts' Court's decisions in the areas of the environment or abortion to speak to whether it has undertaken similar rightward shifts in the law (though I do know that the Supreme Court under Roberts overturned a seven year old precedent in the area of choice with its Gonzales v. Carhart decision). Nevertheless, at least in the area of Civil Rights law, it's hard for me to understand how one could argue that Liu was not prescient in his statement that Roberts was a "cause for concern."