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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 July 2005, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
The judge who is not a woman

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

George W Bush's nominee for the US Supreme Court has raised a few eyebrows. The president had been expected to choose a woman but, as James Coomarasamy discovered, it was unwise to make any assumptions.

A pro-life demonstrator outside the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court faces tough hearings on issues such as abortion
It begins quietly, like the chirp of a rail track signalling the distant approach of a train.

But when the Beltway buzz - the Washington rumour mill - gets going, it soon develops into a huge, rumbling cacophony of congressmen, pundits and TV anchors, all speaking, all speculating about the major news item of the day.

Last Tuesday the news item had a name. Its name was Edith.

Just a short while after the White House had confirmed that President Bush would announce his nominee for the Supreme Court on prime time television that evening, the networks began parading a photo of the woman who - by consensus - was almost certain to be named.

Under pressure

Edith Brown Clement - or was it Cle-MENT, no one seemed sure - had been on a long list of possible nominees to this most powerful of posts but nowhere near the top.

Still, the president was known to be under pressure to replace the retiring justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, with another woman (from his wife, Laura, among others).

The photo showed an attractive, middle-aged woman with neat, blonde hair and the face of a kindly school teacher.

Edith Brown Clement
Little was known about rumoured nominee Edith Brown Clement
In appearance, at least, she did not seem like the sort of extremist zealot who many of the left-wing advocacy groups had been fearing - ie, the sort of judge who would use his or her position on America's highest court to make rulings on subjects such as abortion and the death penalty that would please the president's conservative base and signal a victory for the religious right in America's culture war.

Throughout the day, the pundits struggled to make sense of who she was.

We knew that she was an appeals court judge in New Orleans, who had previously specialised in maritime law but, apart from that, we were hardly awash with information.

One of her colleagues was tracked down and we learned a bit about her.

Good for business

Well, about her name, at least. It was pronounced CLEM-ent and, although she was called Edith, she was actually known as Joy.

But we did not have much joy in finding out what her opinions were on the key divisive social issues of the day.

Still, we did hear the opinion of everyone from legal experts to that shy and retiring entrepreneur, Donald Trump.

He told us that he was sure Justice Edith would be good for business. Or maybe that he was good for business. It was hard to tell.

But this was the moment that the American political establishment had been bracing itself for - the nomination that had the potential to spark off a great partisan war - and they were not going to let it pass without comment.

Diversionary tactic

So, as the clock ticked towards 9pm, groups on the left and right as well as senators' press offices were preparing handouts with her name on.

Meanwhile we wily reporters had already sensed a possible diversionary tactic for, on the list of potential nominees, was another Edith - Edith Jones.

John Roberts with President Bush
George Bush has described John Roberts as "one of the best legal minds of his generation"

The other news story obsessing Washington at the moment is the role played by President Bush's right-hand man, Karl Rove, in the leaking of the name of a CIA agent, so it was appropriate that the name of the Supreme Court nominee was made public through a White House leak, an hour and a quarter early.

And the name was not Edith. It was not even Joy. It was John.

John Roberts is a youthful 50-year-old, with an impeccable-looking young family and impeccable conservative credentials.

He has held positions in the Reagan and Bush Senior White Houses and was clerk to the current Chief Justice, William Rehnquist.

Democrat reaction

As he strode up to the White House podium, his features - a mixture to my eye, at least, of the actors Larry Hagman and Tom Hanks - were already familiar to us.

The president's nominee is good in every way, except that he is not a woman
Sandra Day O'Connor,
Retiring Supreme Court judge
But even as we listened to the president's brief introduction and his nominee's brief words of acceptance, our thoughts were elsewhere, our ears already straining to hear the reaction of the Senate Democrats - the people who would decide whether John Roberts would be confirmed or whether his nomination would be stuck in partisan purgatory.

So has the president lit the touch paper for the start of an almighty battle for the heart and soul of culture?

Well, if there is an explosion on the horizon, the fuse is fizzling rather weakly at the moment. John Roberts' uncertain views on abortion are being questioned, but not with the vehemence that would suggest his confirmation by the Senate is in any real doubt at this point.

Note of caution

And Edith?

For conspiracy theorists, her naming is a clever ploy by the White House. By suggesting that an apparently fairly liberal judge would get the nod, the president's actual nominee - a conservative, but not a campaigning conservative - has pleased the right-wing base more than he might have done, yet without alienating the Democrats.

But not everyone is jumping for joy - or, more accurately, for John. A note of caution was sounded by the woman who has created the vacancy on the court, Sandra Day O'Connor, who is currently enjoying the delights of fly fishing in Idaho.

The president's nominee is good in every way, she has said, except that he is not a woman.

Or, indeed, an Edith.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 23 July, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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