John Roberts: The forgetful Federalist

Bush's Supreme Court nominee may have once joined the Federalist Society, but if he did he can't remember it.

Published July 25, 2005 12:32PM (EDT)

We don't know much about John Roberts. The administration is refusing to release legal memos Roberts wrote while working for the Reagan and first Bush administrations, so we can't say where he stands on abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, or anything else. But if we are to believe the story the White House tells the Washington Post this morning, we aren't the only folks in the dark about Roberts' career -- apparently even Roberts is clueless about his past. The Post finds evidence that Roberts has been a member of the conservative legal group the Federalist Society. But if that's true, the White House says, then it's news to John Roberts, too.

The Post got hold of the 1997-1998 Federalist Society's Lawyers' Division Leadership Directory -- apparently a "Who's Who" of Federalists -- that fingers Roberts as one of the leaders of the group. Roberts, the Post says, is "one of 19 steering committee members listed in the directory." Other steering committee names include such reliably right-wing lawyers as Theodore Olson, Bush's former solicitor general, and his late wife Barbara. Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society's executive vice president, tells the paper that Roberts was recruited for the position by an official at the organization, but he says Roberts' responsibilities were minimal, the main job being to advertise the Federalists to others at his (Roberts') law firm. "The only thing we expect of them is to make sure people in the firm know about us," Leo tells the paper.

Yet if Roberts' role was so limited, why is the White House so cagey about it? Dana Perino, an administration spokeswoman, tells the paper that Roberts "has no recollection of being a member of the Federalist Society, or its steering committee." Perino doesn't deny that Roberts is, or was, a Federalist. Roberts, going by what she says, may well have been a Federalist. Indeed, he may have been a darn good Federalist. It's just that if he was, that time in his life -- the period between 1997 and 1998 -- has completely slipped his mind.

Does it matter if John Roberts is, or was, a Federalist? Yes. Membership in the Federalist Society suggests a certain consistent conservative legal philosophy -- one similar to that of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- which Americans might like to know about before lining up behind Bush's pick. Determining whether Roberts is a Federalist may also tell us something about his credibility, since he has apparently been aggressive about correcting reporters who have previously called him a Federalist.

But perhaps the most important thing we might glean from the mystery over Roberts' Federalist credentials is something about his state of mind. It's odd to forget joining a club; you'd expect most people to remember signing up with, say, the Elks, or the Rotary, or even with the Wine of the Month Club. Joining up with the Federalists -- and agreeing to evangelize for them at your law firm -- would seem to be a bigger, more memorable decision than those. Does the White House really want us to believe that the man they picked to sit on the Supreme Court is quite so absentminded?

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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