Roberts tries to reassure worried Senate Democrats

Committee set to vote on nomination Thursday

September 16, 2005|By Jill Zuckman | Jill Zuckman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Judge John G. Roberts Jr. tried to reassure wavering Senate Democrats yesterday that he is not a hard-edged ideologue, as some of them fear, but could be counted on to respect the rule of law as chief justice of the United States.

During Roberts' fourth and final day before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats continued to express deep reservations about his commitment to civil rights and views on other high-profile issues, while praising his "brilliance" and "amazing knowledge of the law."

Despite Democratic worries, Roberts' confirmation as the 17th chief justice is all but assured with what is likely to be unanimous Republican support. The Judiciary Committee plans to vote on his nomination Thursday, and the full Senate will debate and vote on it the next week.

Roberts, 50, who grew up in Indiana, is expected to take his seat on the bench in time for the start of the next Supreme Court session, beginning Oct. 3.

Even so, Democrats made one last stab at trying to understand what Roberts believes in, all the while expressing a tortured sense of anxiety about the decision before them.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, told Roberts he has awakened in the middle of the night trying to decide how to vote.

"You will, in all likelihood, affect every one of our lives in many ways for a whole generation," Schumer said. "So this isn't just rolling the dice. It's betting the whole house."

And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, described herself and other senators as "struggling."

"I don't really know what I'm going to do," she said, asking the nominee, "What kind of a justice would you be, John Roberts?"

Roberts has been a federal appeals judge for about two years after a career as a prominent Supreme Court attorney. In what sounded like a closing argument of sorts, he told the committee that he would decide cases according to the law without regard for special interests.

"I think if you looked at what I've done since I took the judicial oath, that should convince you that I'm not an ideologue," Roberts told Schumer. "And you and I agree that that's not the sort of person we want on the Supreme Court."

Roberts urged senators to read his briefs and his arguments before the Supreme Court, which he said show him to be "a person who respects the law, respects the court before whom he is arguing and will approach the law in a similar way as a judge."

But Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, expressed frustration that while Roberts helped gays and lesbians defend their rights against the state of Colorado, he also said that if Colorado had asked for his help first, he would have given it.

"I wonder, where are you?" asked Durbin. "All of us are trying to get down to, what are your core values?"

The frustration seemed to reflect a contrast between politicians, who are accustomed to taking strong positions, and lawyers and judges, whose personal views are in many ways supposed to be irrelevant.

At one point, Schumer - evidently grasping for a way to get more insight - asked the nominee what he would ask himself if he were a senator. Roberts answered that committee members had already asked him good, insightful questions.

Roberts responded to Democrats' concerns with a pledge that he would be committed to equal justice.

"If the Constitution says that the little guy should win, the little guy is going to win in court before me," Roberts said. "But if the Constitution says that the big guy should win, well, then the big guy is going to win, because my obligation is to the Constitution. That's the oath. The oath that a judge takes is not that `I'll look out for particular interests' ... . The oath is uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States, and that's what I would do."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, complained that Democrats were making too much out of what was in Roberts' heart.

"I want this committee to understand that if we go down this road of putting people's hearts in play, and the only way you can have a good heart is adopt my values system, we're doing a great disservice to the judiciary," Graham said.

The Judiciary Committee also heard from six panels of witnesses yesterday. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and an icon of the civil rights movement, told senators that if the federal courts had abandoned people during the civil rights struggle in the name of judicial restraint, segregation might exist today. Roberts is an advocate of judicial "modesty," or restraint in deciding cases.

"I fear that if Judge Roberts is confirmed to be chief justice of the United States, the Supreme Court would no longer hear the people's cries for justice," Lewis said.

But Jennifer Braceras of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said charges that Roberts will be harmful to women or minorities are "at best, misplaced and, at worst, deliberately misleading attacks that would have been leveled against anyone nominated to the high court by this president."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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