The phrase often heard in the early reaction to President Bush's nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court was "not much is known about" the appellate judge. His record has been described as "enigmatic."
Actually, a lot is known about Roberts, all of it good. He grew up in Indiana, raced through Harvard, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law, and clerked for a federal appellate judge and for William Rehnquist on the Supreme Court when the now-chief justice was still an associate.
He went on to touch all the bases in the big leagues of Washington law — stints in the offices of the U.S. attorney general, White House counsel and solicitor general and a big-time law firm and, finally, in 2003 a seat on the District of Columbia appeals court, a bench considered second only to the Supreme Court itself. He has appeared before the high court 39 times and is considered a top-flight appellate lawyer. The man is hardly a blank canvas.
He is a judicial conservative in the accepted sense of that term, but he is no ideologue. The words generally used to describe his opinions are "reasoned" and "dispassionate" and excerpts show a dry wit — as in his reference, in an endangered-species case, to "a hapless toad that, for reasons of its own, lives its entire life in California."
The phrase "not much is known about" tends to come from the farther reaches of the political spectrum, where both the far left and the far right fear he may be a closet member of the other side.
As an official in the administration of the elder Bush, arguing for overturning Roe v. Wade — supporters say he was only arguing his client's position — Roberts attracted the immediate and reflexive opposition of abortion-rights groups. But in his 2003 confirmation hearings, he said, appropriately, that he regarded the decision as "a matter of settled law."
The right expressed disappointment that Bush seemed to have erred on the side of caution and gone for a safe choice, rather than the kind of extra-chromosome conservative they had hoped for.
If there is truly anything to the charge that "not much is known about," it's the duty of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate to find out during the confirmation process. Failing some unknown disqualifying factor, we look forward to seeing him on the bench when the Supreme Court reconvenes in October.