A cautionary tale about judges who say they have "no agenda"

Ron Wyden voted for John G. Roberts after convincing himself that the nominee was likely to vote to uphold Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law. He didn't.

Published January 18, 2006 4:29PM (EST)

As we noted earlier today, Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson says he's going to vote to confirm Samuel Alito because he's got to "take him at his word" that he would "not bring a political agenda to the court."

If Nelson is interested in a cautionary tale about that sort of thinking, he might touch base today with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. When John G. Roberts was making courtesy calls on senators over the summer, Wyden tried to suss out how the nominee might rule on a legal challenge to Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law. As the folks at BlueOregon report, Wyden left his meeting with Roberts feeling pretty good about what he had heard.

Wyden told the Oregonian that he was confident that Roberts would maintain a limited view of federal power and hopeful that he would rebuff the Bush administration's attempts to override Oregon law. While the two didn't discuss the physician-assisted suicide case directly, Roberts told Wyden that, on end-of-life questions, he would "start with the supposition that one has the right to be left alone." Wyden was impressed. "I think that's what the people of Oregon have said, that this is not something where government should be intruding," he said.

Wyden voted for Roberts when his nomination came to the Senate floor. But when the Supreme Court handed down its decision Tuesday upholding Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, Roberts was on the other side of the issue. It was the first dissenting vote from the new chief justice, and one that left him aligned with two other justices who insisted, as nominees, that they had no political agenda: Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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