John McCaslin

Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is not worthy of an honorary law degree from the University of Illinois — not yet at least.

"The primary reason is that it was premature. You don't give honorary degrees to positions; you give them to people," college board of trustees member David Dorris, a lawyer, told Inside the Beltway in a telephone interview yesterday from Illinois.

"I have nothing against Roberts. He may wind up being one of the most wonderful chief justices ever in the United States ... but at the time [of the honorary-degree proposal] he had done nothing except to be appointed."

The Champaign News-Gazette first reported the irony: He wins U.S. Senate approval to oversee the nation's highest court, yet the University of Illinois' board of trustees wasn't as impressed with the man who grew up in neighboring Indiana and worked in a steel mill to help pay for his college education.

The saga began in 2006, when the university's Senate, made up of students and faculty, approved awarding the honorary degree to Chief Justice Roberts, and the chancellor and president forwarded the recommendation to the trustees, who have final say. That's when the roadblock went up.

"It's important to have a unanimous vote on honorary-degree recipients," explained university President B. Joseph White. "When I get a sense we don't have a consensus on the board, then we pull it. We don't proceed."

The newspaper, which obtained documents on the nomination process through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, said it was university professor Robert Fossum, a longtime Democrat, who first submitted Chief Justice Roberts' name for the honor.

"I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed for the law school, and I'm disappointed for the university. I think he would have been a good commencement speaker," Mr. Fossum said.

Mr. Dorris had asked the board to consider how it would look if the state's flagship university presented the chief justice with an honorary degree after Illinois' pair of Democratic senators — Barack Obama and Richard J. Durbin — voted against his Supreme Court nomination. Chief Justice Roberts won Senate approval by a 78-22 vote.

Chief Justice Roberts, or so it was intended, was to receive the degree in May 2008. Now, degrees will go instead to Jay Gates, director of the Phillips Collection here in Washington; landscape architect Peter Walker; and University of South Carolina President Andrew Sorensen.

Odds & ends

• Congress realized yesterday that Thanksgiving is over and reconvened in hopes of accomplishing in two weeks — before its next holiday — what it's been unable to do all year. Good luck to us all.

John McCaslin

John McCaslin is a contributing columnist on and author of Inside The Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops, and Shenanigans from around the Nation's Capital .

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