Democrats, GOP begin dance over nominee

Hearings likely to begin early Sept., Specter says

President's Nominee For Supreme Court

July 21, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As Judge John G. Roberts Jr. began making the rounds on Capitol Hill yesterday, the chairman of the committee that will screen the Supreme Court nominee said his confirmation hearings are still more than a month away.

Senate Republicans, in an effort to pre-empt any Democratic attempt to undermine Roberts' chances, talked up his academic and legal credentials. Meantime, Democrats held their cards close, saying that Roberts has strong qualifications but insisting that they needed time - and more information - before making up their minds.

Interest groups on both sides of the judicial fight showed no such hesitation.

Conservatives said President Bush had delivered on his campaign promise to appoint a justice in the mold of Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, the court's most conservative members.

"From every indication, that is exactly what he's done," said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a leading social conservative group. Bush has "nominated a judge who knows the difference between the court and Congress, between litigating and legislating."

Liberal groups - and women's organizations, in particular - said Roberts' elevation to the nation's highest court could imperil reproductive rights, particularly the future of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion.

If confirmed, Roberts would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was a key swing vote on many issues during her nearly 25-year tenure.

"Everything we know about Judge Roberts' record indicates that he will be a solid vote against women's rights and Roe v. Wade," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority.

Smeal's group and the National Organization for Women organized a small demonstration in front of a Senate office building. Protesters, marching in a circle, chanted, "Not the church, not the state. Women must decide their fate!"

Advertising campaigns, funded by deep pockets on both sides, are expected to last throughout August and into early September, the period leading up to Roberts' confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Panel Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, told reporters that hearings would probably begin in early September and promised that they would be thorough and fair.

Specter praised Roberts' academic and legal credentials but said he would not publicly commit to supporting him until after the hearings are complete.

"I like everything that I've seen about Judge Roberts," Specter said. "But I think it is very important to have the hearings and to listen to him before a judgment is made."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who voted against Roberts' appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in committee in 2003, said the country needs to know where Roberts stands on a range of issues, from equal protection to free speech.

"Americans deserve to know if nominees will be on the side of justice and individual liberties, or if they will side with powerful special interests," the Massachusetts Democrat said. "The Senate's role will be to establish clearly whose side John Roberts would be on if confirmed to the most powerful court in the land."

But Sen. John Cornyn, a staunch advocate for Bush's judicial nominees, said judges are supposed to be on no side except that of the law and the Constitution.

In 2003, the Senate approved Roberts' nomination to the appeals court without a roll-call vote, but Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, who also voted against Roberts in committee that year, said his Supreme Court nomination represents a "new ballgame."

Cornyn, however, said he saw no reason why Roberts should come under closer scrutiny.

"He's a known quantity," said the Texas Republican, who is also on the committee.

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican committee member who is one of his party's most ardent opponents of abortion rights, said Roberts' brief judicial record on many issues - including abortion - justified a closer look at how he approaches the Constitution.

"Everybody remembers David Souter," the Kansas senator said, referring to the first President Bush's appointee, who has disappointed conservatives since joining the high court. "There does seem to be more knowledge about [Roberts]. ... I want to trust, but verify."

In 1990, while serving in the solicitor general's office, Roberts co-wrote a legal brief that said Roe v. Wade should be overturned, which reflected the views of that office at the time. Two years ago, at his confirmation hearing for the appeals court, he called Roe "the settled law of the land."

Schumer suggested that Democrats might ask to see more documents relating to Roberts' work as a government lawyer.

Such a request could reopen an old judicial-nominee battle, last fought over Bush's nomination of Miguel A. Estrada, who withdrew from consideration in 2003 after a prolonged fight. Democrats complained that Estrada was not open enough about his views and requested documents from his time in the solicitor general's office under Bush's father. The White House refused to release the documents.

"This is not a game of `gotcha,"' Schumer said. "It's simply a fair-minded inquiry into the views of somebody who will have huge power over most Americans."

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