Roberts tells panel he wouldn't bring personal views into work on court

Nominee's reticence frustrates Democrats

final questions today

September 15, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Pressed by senators on issues ranging from private property rights to the right to die, Judge John G. Roberts Jr. said yesterday that he would not allow his personal views to creep into his work on the Supreme Court.

President Bush's nominee for chief justice declined, for the second day in a row, to lay out his views on issues that might come before the court. His reticence prompted annoyance from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who complained that the 50-year-old appellate judge was talking a lot but saying little.

"Without any knowledge of your understanding of the law - because you will not share it with us - we are rolling the dice with you, Judge," said Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.

Republicans defended Roberts' right to demur, saying previous nominees have done so.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch told Roberts he was the best nominee he had seen in decades and that he looked forward to watching him in the chief justice's seat when the court begins its new term Oct. 3.

"We've seen some really sterling, brilliant, wonderful people before this committee. But I've never seen anybody who has done a better job of explaining himself than you have," said the Utah Republican.

A final, short round of questioning is set for this morning, followed by testimony from more than two dozen outside witnesses, including former colleagues and conservative and liberal partisans.

Republicans hold a 10-8 advantage on the committee, which is expected to approve Roberts' nomination next week. Barring a major surprise, the Senate will confirm him as the nation's 17th chief justice this month.

Yesterday, senators returned to Roberts' interpretation of the right to privacy, with both sides looking for hints about how he might vote in abortion cases. The conversations wound up being mostly one-sided.

Biden asked about the ability of citizens to make decisions about ending their lives and encouraged Roberts to answer on a personal level. Roberts replied that judges should not bring their personal views into their decisions.

"I'm not going to consider issues like that in the context as a father or a husband, or anything else," Roberts said. "I think obviously putting aside any of those considerations, these issues are the most difficult we face as people and they are profoundly affected by views of individuality and moral views and deeply personal views."

Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont asked Roberts about the rights of death-row inmates to appeal their cases, pointing to the exoneration of a string of wrongfully convicted prisoners.

"Does the Constitution permit the execution of an innocent person?" Leahy asked.

"I would think not," Roberts replied. "But the question is never `Do you allow the execution of an innocent person?' The question is `Do you allow particular claimants to raise different claims, four or five or six times, to say at the last minute that somebody who just died was actually the person who committed the murder and let's have a new trial? Or do you take into account the proceedings that have already gone on?'"

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, asked about one of the Supreme Court's most contentious recent decisions, in which the city of New London, Conn., was allowed to take private property and give it to another private entity for economic development.

Roberts said Congress and state legislatures have the power to pass laws barring such transactions. He would not say whether he thought the case was wrongly decided but did say the primary check on judges is their self-restraint.

"They're given life tenure, as you mentioned, precisely because they're not shaping policy. They're not supposed to be responsive; they're supposed to just interpret the law," Roberts said.

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