I have been fascinated by the confirmation hearings for John Roberts, nominated for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It’s not often that this happens, so I’ve been listening to the live hearings on NPR while in the car and checking the news in the evening to pay attention to it. I’ve particularly enjoyed listening to Roberts himself. His command of American legal history combined with his articulateness are impressive and I believe I have learned more about the judicial branch of government and its role by listening to him and the Senators who have been questioning him.
I think the reason I find these hearings, and Judge Roberts in particular, so fascinating is that we share something in common. We are in the business of wrestling with the intersection of authoritative text and human life. I am charged to interpret and apply the Word of God in Scripture for the formation of disciples and the mission of the gospel. I am charged to listen to the particulars of real life context in discerning how the self-revelation of God to the Hebrews over several millennia culminating in Christ speaks words of grace, judgment, holiness, compassion and love into the muck and mire, glitz and glamour of our world. Great care, humility, and devotion are required to be found faithful in “handling the word of truth.” So I can appreciate a person whose job and love is in taking care to be faithful in listening to the authoritative text (in the Court’s case, the Constitution) and the particulars of each case that comes their way.
One frustration I have had is in the amount of “talking past one another” that has gone on in the hearings. The crucial problem, I think has to do with the difference between focusing on the process or on the outcome. The presenting issue in this case has been the prominent abortion cases Roe and Casey. Some Senators ask questions as if the duty of a Justice is to insure that a certain outcome prevails regardless of the details of the case and the merits of the legal arguments involved. But Judge Roberts has seemed to approach the role of the judiciary from a “process” perspective. The better questions are those that assess and evaluate the methods by which he would approach the cases that come to the court. It seems to me that the focus on guaranteeing certain outcomes versus safeguarding the integrity of right processes simply does not hold up when one looks at history. Who today would defend an outcome-oriented selection for justices if the outcome they wanted the court to perserve was the “separate but equal” clause that guarded segregation as the “law of the land.” This case and its reversal in Brown v. Board of Education alone ought to remind us that we dare not insulate outcomes from proper judicial process. But we must insure that the process is properly executed.