WASHINGTON -- Hearings on the nomination of Judge David H. Souter to the Supreme Court open tomorrow and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says the judge will be grilled about his views on abortion, civil rights and religion.
"I believe he must expect to be asked specific questions concerning quite specific aspects of his judicial philosophy, and we have a right to expect answers," the Delaware Democrat said yesterday on the Senate floor. "The burden of proof is on the nominee."
A "Supreme Court justice can assume his post only if we in the Senate are persuaded that that nominee is the right person for that position at that particular junction in history," Biden said.
Biden also spoke of the need for "some rather specific questions about constitutional issues -- including religion, speech, civil rights and abortion -- and expecting some rather specific answers." This is a view echoed by staff members of other committee Democrats who feel the hearings, which could last up to a week, are their only opportunity to elucidate Souter's approach to sensitive constitutional issues.
Requiring Souter to give specific answers has been championed by liberal advocacy groups whose leaders fear that the judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit in Boston would play a key role in reducing court protection for the rights of minority group members and women.
Planned Parenthood issued a position paper yesterday calling on the Senate to ask Souter whether he believes in constitutional privacy and, if so, whether that extends "to a woman's decision to terminate her pregnancy by abortion."
The organization also released a poll it conducted during the first week in September of 1,000 registered voters, indicating that three-quarters of them believe it appropriate for the Senate to question Supreme Court nominees about their "personal views on privacy, separation of church and state, abortion and civil rights."
Biden's argument yesterday was that, since Souter's record shows little involvement with a number of divisive issues, the judge is obliged to give senators a sense of how he analyzes such questions.
Traditionally, high court nominees have been turned down for corruption, incompetence or ideological disagreement, but never for vagueness in answering questions.
But Biden argued that, following July's retirement of Justice William J. Brennan Jr., the court is at a historic juncture and too much is at stake to grant someone a lifetime post on the bench without a clear sense of his views.
Souter, 50, of Weare, N.H., has been a federal appeals judge in Boston for several months, having served previously on the New Hampshire Supreme Court, as a trial judge and as New Hampshire attorney general. But his extensive career in the law gives few clues to his approach to the issues that divide the current high court justices.