Confirmation hearings are likely to heat up

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Transition In The Supreme Court

September 06, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The abrupt shift of Judge John G. Roberts Jr.'s nomination, from associate justice to chief justice, set off a fresh round of debate yesterday over his fitness for the job.

Roberts, a former clerk for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Saturday, is expected to win confirmation easily. But his confirmation hearings - scheduled to start today but delayed at least several days - are likely to be more contentious because President Bush has decided to elevate him to the court's top position.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said at a late-afternoon news conference at the Capitol that he is confident that Roberts will be on the bench when the court begins its new term Oct. 3.

Some Democratic senators, and a number of outside interest groups, said Roberts should be held to a higher standard as the president's choice for chief justice.

"The chief justice is the most important judge in the country, with even more responsibility for the protection of the rights and freedoms of all Americans," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Thus John Roberts bears a heavier burden when he comes before the Senate."

Kennedy also said Bush should fill the second vacancy on the court, which was created by Rehnquist's death, before the Senate votes on the Roberts nomination.

Roberts was initially nominated to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a key swing vote on the court and a more moderate justice than Rehnquist. She has said that she will remain on the court until her replacement is confirmed.

Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal group that had announced its opposition to Roberts, called him "unfit" to be chief justice. In a statement, Neas demanded that the White House release documents from Roberts' tenure as a government lawyer that the administration has refused to share with the Senate.

"Excessive secrecy is an enemy of accountability and an enemy of representative democracy," Neas said. "Senators must be given the truth about Roberts' judicial philosophy before they vote on whether to confirm him to the highest judicial seat in the nation."

Because Roberts, 50, is the president's choice for chief justice, public attention paid to the hearings should increase, said Nan Aron, head of the Alliance for Justice, a coalition of liberal-leaning groups that also has announced its opposition to Roberts.

"Certainly, it magnifies the important task already facing the Senate," Aron said. "Given the unique role of the chief justice, the Senate needs to employ heightened scrutiny during the confirmation, at the very least."

Republicans and conservative interest groups said that if Roberts is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, he is qualified to lead it.

"President Bush has shown extraordinary leadership at a time when Americans want stability for the country's judiciary," said Brian McCabe of Progress for America, a conservative group that has been running television ads in support of the Roberts nomination.

"Opposition to this nomination will be based on nothing but partisan politics and would be an unfortunate strategy at a time when the Senate ought to be coming together to get things done for the American people."

Sean Rushton of the Committee for Justice, another pro-administration group, said he expects Roberts to be held to the same high standard as any nominee.

"That still means he's not going to answer Chuck Schumer's questions that are specific to certain recent cases and controversies," Rushton said, referring to Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York.

Looming over the hearings will be the question of filling the court's ninth seat. When Bush will name his choice isn't known. He might decide to wait until Roberts has been confirmed before making an announcement.

That could complicate the efforts of some senators to frame their questions for Roberts, because the ideology of Bush's second nominee will also be important to the future of the court, said Carl W. Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor.

"It's still, I think, not clear where Judge Roberts will be on many of these [legal] issues. So it's doubly unclear what will happen to the court," Tobias said. "I think it will be very difficult for the senators to question Roberts, because they're asking him about his views as a justice, and now they're asking him about his views as chief justice."

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