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Issue Date:  July 29, 2005

Court nominee's Catholic connections


Supreme Court nominee John Roberts is, by all accounts, a brilliant lawyer with a distinguished establishment pedigree: Harvard College and Law School, clerk to Justice William Rehnquist, high-level posts at the Justice Department in the Reagan and Bush I administrations, partner in Washington’s oldest and largest law firm, and Federal Circuit Court judge.

And he’s a churchgoing Catholic, though not, says Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation, “a movement Catholic,” by which Ruse means those Catholics scattered throughout Washington’s think tanks, law firms, publications, and Republican administration posts for whom religious affiliation translates almost seamlessly into conservative political ideology.

The public record bears that out. The Roberts’ family -- his wife of nine years, Jane Sullivan Roberts, is a prominent attorney in her own right, and they have two adopted children -- are members of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Md. It is a thoroughly ordinary upscale suburban parish (known affectionately as “the big weed” to its Catholic Youth Organization competitors.) Roberts attended Catholic parochial school in Indiana and an all-boys Catholic boarding school. That’s about the extent of the on-the-record Catholic biography for Mr. Roberts.

It is always tricky business to ascribe political beliefs to one spouse based on the activities of the other, and the same could certainly be said of religious beliefs.

That said, if there is any clue to the kind of Catholic activism that has long been a part of the Roberts household, it is Mrs. Roberts who provides the evidence. A graduate of Jesuit-run Holy Cross College and Georgetown Law School, Jane Roberts is on the board of the John Carroll Society, the nonpartisan Catholic lawyers’ organization in Washington that engages in charitable works and sponsors the annual Red Mass on the Sunday prior to the opening of a Supreme Court session. In 2000, she volunteered for the Bush presidential campaign, putting together position papers on a range of issues, including wage disparities felt by women in the workforce.

She’s a board member of her alma mater, Holy Cross, where she serves on the task force on “mission identity,” an area, given ongoing debates about academic freedom and institutional church influence on everything from faculty appointments to curriculum, potentially rife with controversy. “If there’s any place [on the board] where you would be able to identify an extremist you would see it there,” said Jesuit Fr. Charles Currie, a fellow board member. Not the case with Jane Roberts, said Currie. “She’s a woman of strong and intelligent convictions who is more than willing to enter into dialogue with people of other viewpoints,” said Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

But for those searching for clues to how a Justice Roberts might rule on the hottest of hot-button issues, abortion, Jane Roberts’ work with Feminists for Life is getting scrutiny. She was a hands-on board member of the unconventional pro-life organization between 1995-99, recalled the group’s president, Serrin Foster.

Working pro bono, Roberts did much of the unglamorous work -- drafting bylaws, incorporation papers, drawing up contracts -- that is vital to the success of any nonprofit organization, recalled Foster. Under board direction, the organization’s focus was less about the legality of abortion than its impact on women and the unborn, said Foster.

“We wanted to address the root causes of what drives women to abortion,” said Foster. Among the initiatives undertaken at the time were opposition to the “family cap” (a provision of 1990s welfare reform legislation that would have reduced benefits for women with more than two children), enhanced child support enforcement initiatives (so absent fathers would be required to contribute to their children’s care), and the establishment of programs to assist pregnant college-age women to complete their education while carrying their child to term.

Foster recalled that Roberts drafted an affidavit in support of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the Kentucky branch of the National Honor Society, which barred high school girls who gave birth and kept their babies from membership. The policy -- which did not penalize girls who had abortions, those who offered their children for adoption, or the fathers -- was overturned, said Foster.

What impact, if any, will Jane Sullivan Roberts’ activities have on the confirmation of John Roberts? Ultimately, probably not much. Despite a long history of public service and high-profile private practice, the nominee has neither written nor said much about what he thinks and believes, leaving both liberals and conservatives to seek ammunition or solace where they can find it.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005

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