Friday, August 05, 2005

John Roberts, Defender of Gay Rights?

And just when I was ready to denounce him as a conservative hard-liner. Via the NYTs.

Judge John G. Roberts Jr., the Supreme Court nominee, gave advice to advocates for gay rights a decade ago, helping them win a landmark 1996 ruling protecting gay men and lesbians from state-sanctioned discrimination.

Judge Roberts, at the time an appellate lawyer for the Washington firm of Hogan & Hartson, did not write legal briefs or argue the case, lawyers involved said. But they said he did provide invaluable strategic guidance working pro bono to formulate legal theories and coach them in moot court sessions.

The case in question.

Romer v. Evans, is considered a touchstone in the culture wars, and it produced what the gay rights movement considers its most significant legal victory. By a 6-to-3 vote, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Colorado Constitution that nullified existing civil rights protections for gay men and lesbians and also barred the passage of new antidiscrimination laws.

Before we go draping Roberts in rainbow-colored garlands, it’s important to note that his role in the case was fairly limited. Roberts worked pro bono, spending about six hours advising and preparing the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. Was he motivated by a burning desire to defend gay rights? Probably not.

Walter A. Smith, who was in charge of pro bono work at Hogan & Hartson from 1993 to 1997, and who worked extensively on the Romer case, said about a dozen lawyers at the firm assisted. He said he had little trouble recruiting Judge Roberts.

"It looked like a challenging, interesting, provocative, important case," said Mr. Smith, who is now the executive director of the D. C. Appleseed Center, a nonpartisan public interest legal group. "Everybody knew that, and I think he believed it was worth his time."

Mr. Smith said part of his job was to match lawyers with cases that would intrigue them, and that his initial instinct was that Judge Roberts would be willing, despite his conservative bent. In the past, Judge Roberts has made it a point to note that lawyers do not always agree with their clients.

Even if Roberts was primarily interested in the legal challenges and implications of the case and not gay rights, his willingness to work on an important issue is a mark in his favor as far as I’m concerned. But we shouldn’t get carried away. Roberts’ cons still outweigh his pros. If anything, this recent development, rather than heartening liberals, probably scares the far right. Now they’re fearing that Roberts might end up a turncoat like Kennedy or, God forbid, Souter.

--Matthew Mccoy