Anti-Abortion Advocacy of Wife of Court Nominee Draws Interest
By LYNETTE CLEMETSON and ROBIN TONER
WASHINGTON, July 22 - Judge John G. Roberts has left little hard evidence of his views on abortion in recent years and is widely expected to try to avoid the issue in his coming confirmation hearings.
But there is little mystery about the views of his wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, a Roman Catholic lawyer from the Bronx whose pro bono work for Feminists for Life is drawing intense interest in the ideologically charged environment of a Supreme Court confirmation debate. Some abortion opponents view her activities as a clear signal that the Robertses are committed to their cause; supporters of abortion rights fear the same thing. Others say that drawing a direct line from her activities to how her husband might rule on the Supreme Court—assuming that he not only shares her views, but would also act on them to overturn 32 years of legal precedents—is both politically risky and in bad form.
No less a Democratic stalwart than Senator Edward M. Kennedy said, at a breakfast meeting with reporters on Friday, that Mrs. Roberts's work “ought to be out of bounds.”
Advocates on both sides have long acknowledged that with this issue, the personal is often political. But Mrs. Roberts has led an independent and unapologetic life that defies any attempt at pigeonholing.
Mrs. Roberts, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was not recruited by Feminists for Life, but sought the group out about a decade ago and offered her services as a lawyer, said its president, Serrin Foster. The group was reorganizing at the time and beginning to focus its work on college campuses. Its mission statement, driven home in advertising in recent years, says: “Abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.”
Mrs. Roberts served on the board of the organization for four years, and later provided legal services. Ms. Foster said that as an adoptive parent, Mrs. Roberts made contributions that included urging the group to focus more on the needs of biological mothers, and adding a biological mother to the board of directors.
Ms. Foster said Feminists for Life was committed not only to ending abortion, but also to making it “unthinkable” by providing every woman with the assistance she needs. Reversing Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion, is a goal, she said, “but not enough.”
In recent years, the group has supported efforts to ban the procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion, which is usually performed in the second and third trimesters, as well as legislation that prohibits transporting a minor across state lines to evade parental notification laws. In previous years, the group weighed in on litigation seeking further restrictions on abortion, but Ms. Foster said that was before Mrs. Roberts joined the board.
“We're not a litigious institution now,” Ms. Foster said. “We decided we were not a legal group; we were going to go after parenting resources and pregnancy resources, and Jane was part of that redefinition. She came on at that time.”
Sensing the highly charged atmosphere around the issue, longtime friends and colleagues of Mrs. Roberts declined to speak this week about her views on abortion. But they characterized her political and social views much as her husband's friends have portrayed his in recent days: expressly conservative, but not dogmatic.
“Jane has very strong personal convictions, politically and with regard to her faith,” said Christine Kearns, a friend and colleague who has worked with Mrs. Roberts for 18 years at a law firm now called Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. “But as long as I've known her, I've never known her to impose them on others or to be unwilling to listen to other people's points of view.”
One thing is certain; Mrs. Roberts's Catholic faith has long played a central role in her life. The daughter of a Postal Service technician and a medical secretary, Jane Sullivan grew up the oldest of four children in what was an Italian and Irish neighborhood in the Morris Park section of the Bronx, where she played dodgeball in the streets and took Irish step dancing lessons. With the family's parish church, Our Lady of Solace, down the block and her paternal grandparents living next door, it was a safe, close-knit existence. The family held onto its ties to Ireland, keeping a family home in the small town of Knocklong in the County of Limerick, where they still gather at least every two years.
After graduating from St. Catherine's Academy, an all-girls' high school in the Bronx, Mrs. Roberts joined the first class of women to enter the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass., where she attended Mass several times a week, tutored football players in mathematics, her major, and carved a path as a student leader. A budding feminist even with her traditionalist streak, she was one of four students who represented the student body in a heated dispute when the feminist scholar Marilyn French, who taught at the college from 1972 to 1976, was denied tenure.
“We were the pioneers,” said Connie McCaffrey, a clinical social worker at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire who has been a close friend of Mrs. Roberts since they met on the first day of freshman year. “There was a very strong sense of camaraderie among the women who came in that year. And Janey took her responsibilities as one among that group very seriously.” Determined to explore the world, she graduated from Holy Cross in 1976, traveled to Australia on a Rotary scholarship, trekked through Nepal and backpacked around Europe before earning a master's degree in applied mathematics from Brown in 1981 and a law degree from Georgetown in 1984.
She has maintained close ties with Holy Cross, serving on its board. The Rev. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, is also a member of the Holy Cross board and regularly travels to its meetings with Mrs. Roberts. “It's unfortunate in this whole discussion,” Father Currie said, “they're already putting it somewhat in terms of conservative/liberal. It's always a shame when issues are reduced to that simplicity. She may be conservative in some things, but not in others. She's much more complex.”
In her professional life, Mrs. Roberts continued to look for the road less traveled, establishing a specialty in the male-dominated field of technology and communications law and earning a partnership in her firm's global technology practice. Still, friends and family members said, she asserted a quietly defiant individuality, negotiating multimillion-dollar satellite deals while still driving a bright orange Volkswagen Beetle long after she could have afforded a more expensive car.
Friends say she met John G. Roberts in Dewey Beach, Del. “I think she kind of just knew he was the one,” said her sister Mary Torre. “He had a great sense of humor, which in an Irish family is very important.”
The couple married in July 1996, when they were both 41, and friends say they immediately began discussing their desire to start a family, even talking about children at their wedding reception.
“Most of us had gotten married in the mid-80's,” said Richard Lazarus, a friend and law school roommate of Mr. Roberts, “and I can't say that during those weddings we talked about children. We were more focused on ourselves.”
“These were two, very accomplished, very successful lawyers,” Mr. Lazarus said. “It wasn't an incidental statement. It was a shared, very important next step, and it was a very pronounced theme.”
In 2000 the couple adopted a daughter, Josephine, and a son, John, through what Ms. Torre said was a private adoption. “It is a testament to the power of prayer,” said Ms. Kearns, Mrs. Roberts's friend. “Who knew whether they would get any children. They qualified to adopt. She waited, but she never, ever, was discouraged.”
After years as a hard-charging lawyer, Mrs. Roberts went part-time in 2003, designing and running an in-house professional development center for her firm (though colleagues say her part-time hours would be considered full-time to most people).
The Robertses' relationship, some say, has deepened their faith. “As it often happens, when two people get together and share a faith, it can be magnified by their joining,” Mr. Lazarus said. “I think that has been the case for them, even more so once they had the kids. But it is a very personal faith. It does not serve, for them, as a way of judging others.”
With the Supreme Court confirmation battle under way, when everything from her views on abortion to her children's clothes will be under scrutiny, Mrs. Roberts is showing her customary aplomb, friends say. Among her only complaints is that the air-conditioning in her PT Cruiser, which she is driving to strategy sessions at the White House, stopped working during this, the hottest week so far in a very hot summer. So far, she has said, she has managed to weather the heat.From the New York Times on the Web © The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission. E-mail this page to a friend
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