The L.A. Times burnishes its credentials this morning as a liberal rag, with its banner headline: Bush Leans Right in Court Pick. The sub-head (what I am told is the “deck headline”) reads: “Roberts Has Longtime GOP Ties but a Short Resume as Appellate Judge.”
This confluence of headlines has the effect of portraying the impressive Roberts as an inexperienced partisan hack — an impression reinforced by the beginning of the article, which emphasizes that Roberts “argued conservative positions on abortion and other issues before the high court during his years as a lawyer for Republican administrations” — but has a “limited judicial record.”
Compare the main story in the Washington Post, which is titled Bush Chooses Roberts for Court, with a deck headline that reads: “Appeals Judge for D.C. Has Conservative Credentials.” See how much fairer that sounds? And the first paragraph of that story describes Roberts as “a well-regarded litigator with conservative credentials and friends in both parties.”
It’s a much more balanced picture — but then, the Washington Post is a much better newspaper.
To be fair, the L.A. Times article has some positive things to say about Roberts further down in the article, and an accompanying profile is cautiously positive, describing Roberts as smart and not overly ideological.
This is undoubtedly true — which is why it is doubly distressing to see the paper’s main article struggling so hard in its headline and opening paragraphs to create an impression of Roberts as a callow party apparatchik.
The article sets forth a list of cases decided by Roberts designed to reinforce the picture of him as a strong right-winger. These and other cases will no doubt be the subject of much debate in the coming weeks, but I’d like to focus on one in particular, which I have placed in bold type in the following quote from the story:
As a judge, he has been sympathetic to arguments that wildlife regulations were unconstitutional as applied to a California construction project. He joined in a ruling upholding police trunk searches even when officers did not assert evidence of a crime, and another that said police did not violate the constitutional rights of a 12-year-old girl who was arrested, handcuffed and detained for eating a French fry inside a train station.
There is no serious argument that Roberts’s decision in that case was wrong. He wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. Even People for the American Way, in their brief on Roberts, mounts no argument that Roberts got the law wrong in that case.
So why bring up this case in the story? Because it gives readers a chance to think: “Wow. Roberts favors arresting 12-year-old girls for eating French Fries in train stations? What a jerk!”
There is no hint in the story of how Roberts actually felt about the police arresting a 12-year-old girl for such an offense; the implication is that he approved. Not so. Here is the first paragraph of Roberts’s opinion in that case (all emphasis mine):
No one is very happy about the events that led to this litigation. A twelve-year-old girl was arrested, searched, and handcuffed. Her shoelaces were removed, and she was transported in the windowless rear compartment of a police vehicle to a juvenile processing center, where she was booked, fingerprinted, and detained until released to her mother some three hours later — all for eating a single french fry in a Metrorail station. The child was frightened, embarrassed, and crying throughout the ordeal. The district court described the policies that led to her arrest as “foolish,” and indeed the policies were changed after those responsible endured the sort of publicity reserved for adults who make young girls cry. The question before us, however, is not whether these policies were a bad idea, but whether they violated the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution. Like the district court, we conclude that they did not, and accordingly we affirm.
Roberts’s opinion palpably expresses upset at the way the situation was handled. But the only issue for John Roberts the judge was whether the Constitution had been violated. It clearly had not.
[UPDATE: Another quote from the case makes my point even more clearly:
The district court had and we too may have thoughts on the wisdom of this policy choice — it is far from clear that the gains in certainty of notification are worth the youthful trauma and tears — but it is not our place to second-guess such legislative judgments.]
If the L.A. Times is going to bring up a case like this, the paper’s supposed goal of fairness dictates that the article set forth Roberts’s obvious displeasure with the facts of the case. It would have required only a few words to do so. If they didn’t have the space, they should have cut the example entirely, since it has no relevance other than to make Roberts look cold-hearted.
If this is the kind of thing that passes for analysis at the L.A. Times, we’re in for a rough next few weeks.