Roberts' Rope-A-Dope

Chief Justice nominee John Roberts gestures while testifies on Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2005, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

An hour before Supreme Court chief justice nominee John G. Roberts Jr. began his day here on the anvil, his small table in Room 216 of the Hart Senate office building looked remarkably simple. There was a water glass turned upside down. There was a small white pad of paper and a No. 2 pencil, sharpened but not too much. There was a little white paper nameplate with the words "Judge John Roberts" on it. There was a small timer.

And of course there was a microphone.

There were no notebooks or briefing books. No stacks of papers or file folders. All those had been left behind in the many rooms in which Roberts had been busily preparing lately for these long, fractious hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

On Tuesday, it was just 18 slick politicians and one bright judge and by any reasonable standard the judge won out. You can lead a judicial nominee to the committee room, it seems, but no matter how much logic you throw at him you can't make him talk.

Roberts did a relentlessly successful job of rope-a-doping his Committee adversaries into frustration and exasperation while at the same time using his Committee allies to show off his penchant for talking down the role of judges in our society.

He recited many general statements of legal theory but, like the Constitution itself and all the legislation he soon will review as the chief justice, his words were ambiguous; capable of meaning completely different things to different people on opposite sides of the legal and political divide.

It's all well and good for Roberts to say, as he did over and over again, that he respects the rule and the role of precedent. But merely saying that doesn't distinguish Roberts in any way from virtually any other lawyer in the history of American law.

It's also fine to say, as Roberts did, that judges should be careful to make sure that the litigants before them have a right to seek relief from the courts. Of course they should. But that doesn't tell us about how quickly and firmly Roberts intends to shut the doors of our courthouses to people who have nowhere else to go.

It's a no-brainer for any nominee to say that judges should leave their personal beliefs out of the equation of judicial review. The question is whether that can ever be done and whether ability to do it is a genetic trait only in Republican judicial minds. And how about the whopper: no one is above the law? No kidding.

These truths should be so self-evident that they needn't be spoken. But they were — and when they were they were spun as news. Roberts in this way effectively scratched so many surfaces of so many important issues without actually answering anything on the merits that he'll probably have to file his nails before he takes the bench next month.

To Democrats on the panel, Roberts dodged and weaved and bobbed and then fell back, when cornered, on the nobly-stated, easily-sound-byted (and overtly cowardly) line that a nominee shouldn't answer questions about specific cases or issues that may come before the Court.