Roberts' Wife 'Off-Limits' in Court Fight

WASHINGTON — In 1995, Jane Sullivan walked into the Washington office of Feminists for Life, a pro-life organization that had recently re-located.

Today Jane Sullivan is better known as the wife of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.

“She sought us out,” Executive Director Serrin Foster said of the young attorney. “She wanted to do some pro-bono work, so she contacted me. We didn't have any money.” The organization, founded in 1972, wanted not only to enact legal protections for the unborn but also to eliminate the causes of abortion.

After the two talked that night for about an hour, Sullivan agreed to become the executive vice president of the organization's board. For the next four years, Sullivan worked on a variety of issues, many of which were humdrum, such as trademark protection for the group's “Women Deserve Better than Abortion” campaign.

However, Sullivan also worked on some that were not, such as fighting a successful attempt by Congress in 1996 to reduce payments to mothers who bear children while on welfare.

Jane Sullivan Roberts, who is 50, has been profiled by a number of national media outlets. Yet despite being a clear supporter of restoring legal protection to the unborn — she currently serves as the organization's legal counsel — Jane Roberts has attracted virtually no criticism from pro-abortion senators or organizations.

In her case, the personal is not considered political.

“She said that Judge Roberts' wife is not an issue,” David Sandretti, spokesman for Sen. Barbara Boxer, a pro-abortion California Democrat, said.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, was quoted in a July 22 story in The Christian Science Monitor saying that Jane Roberts' views “ought to be out of bounds.”

“I don't know that Jane Roberts' opinions or philosophy have anything to do with her husband's,” said Olga Vives, executive vice president for the National Organization for Women, which is better known as NOW. “He is the one we have to worry about, not her. She stands on her own.”

In the late 1960s and early '70s, NOW helped popularize the phrase “the personal is political.” The idea, among other things, was that personal factors shape a person's public actions. In October 1991, at a Senate hearing into whether high court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed former colleague Anita Hill, the phrase was used as a way of opposing Thomas' nomination.

The reluctance to weigh in on Jane Roberts may stem partly from uncertainty about her influence over the nominee.

“I have no idea. It would be very presumptuous for me to say,” Linda Greenhouse, the longtime Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times, said, adding she has never met Jane Roberts.

Even pro-life supporters expressed reluctance about the matter, though many considered Jane Roberts an indication that the nominee opposes legal abortion.

“Jane offers assurance to pro-lifers,” Hadley Arkes, a professor of political science at Amherst College, said, describing her as “deeply thoughtful and principled.” “My sense is that they share a serious Catholic perspective. Even if he listened to her” about abortion, he said, “it's not clear to me how he would rule on the court.”

The recent historical record about Supreme Court justices offers contradictory clues as to how family members shape their thinking about abortion.

According to The Brethren, a 1979 book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, Justice Potter Stewart was partly influenced to vote in favor of liberalizing abortion laws because of his daughter Harriet. At the same time, Justice Anthony Kennedy in 1992 is said to have voted to uphold Roe v. Wade despite the opposition of his wife.

In the absence of tangible evidence of Jane Roberts' influence, Feminists for Life has been one beneficiary of positive media portrayals. Since President Bush nominated Judge Roberts July 19, the organization has been winningly profiled in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.

“It's been a remarkable experience for me,” Foster said. “A lot of people predicated that the media would not be kind to our group. I talked to a lot of reporters … and this was the first time we were not characterized as opponents of abortion.

“We're getting a tsunami of calls,” she said, later amending the sentence with “avalanche. … This has totally blown the wind out of our sails, but it's a good wind.”

The favorable press coverage could boost the national image of pro-life groups. Only 42% of non-Catholic voters in 2004 had a favorable impression of such organizations, according to a March 2005 memo by Democracy Corps, a polling and consulting organization to Democratic candidates. The comparable figure for white Catholics was 49%.

In addition to her work for Feminists for Life, Jane Sullivan Roberts is a partner at Pillsbury, Winthrop, Shaw, & Pittman, a prestigious Washington-based law firm. She and her husband have two adopted children.

Mark Stricherz writes from Washington, D.C.