Judge Roberts speaks

September 15, 2005

THERE WERE moments of humor and even what might pass for candor during some contentious exchanges. But, for the most part, the confirmation hearings of John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice of the United States have been carefully scripted, with few if any surprises.

Given the stakes - the first hearing on a Supreme Court nominee in 11 years and the first for chief justice in 19 years - the posturing by some senators and the frequent evasiveness by Judge Roberts was predictable. But after a day of opening statements and two days of interrogation, the senators and the public had at least a picture of Judge Roberts - as he chose to present himself.

His impressive credentials for the job - including clerking for the late William H. Rehnquist, whom he has been named to succeed, arguing many cases before the high court and two years as a federal appeals court judge - were certainly on display. He came across as knowledgeable, thoughtful and respectful, but no pushover. As he prepares to sit atop the federal judiciary, he insisted that he had no agenda and promised to keep an open mind.

But from the outset, in response to questions by Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, Judge Roberts clearly wanted to make a point by expressing the view that Roe v. Wade, a lightning rod for conservatives and liberals, was "settled as a precedent of the court." That's no guarantee of how he will vote on abortion cases - or any other issues on which the court has ruled - but it was a signal.

In fact, his mantra of a limited role for courts and judges in making policy and of being guided by the law, not his personal beliefs, seemed to seal his place among more traditional conservatives. And while there were no revelations that would likely derail his confirmation, there were a few tense exchanges leading to his apparent retreat from some seemingly hostile views about civil rights and voting rights expressed in memos he wrote as a junior lawyer during the Reagan administration.

He was occasionally feisty as he defended his right not to answer questions about specific cases or even issues, saying he was not engaged in a bargaining process with the senators. And he gave some hint of the kind of chief justice he would be when he suggested that he would work to bring more clarity to majority opinions. But as history proves, and many presidents have been pleased or chagrined to discover, the evolution of a chief justice or an associate justice, is unpredictable.

We would certainly prefer a nominee in whom we had more confidence on issues such as civil and criminal rights and environmental protections, but we will keep an open mind.

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