A Preview of John Roberts' Confirmation Hearings

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Confirmation hearings for John Roberts are slated to begin Sept. 6. But before they do, senators will peruse some of the Supreme Court nominee's writings. Steve Inskeep talks with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary committee, about the Roberts confirmation hearings.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here in Washington now, Democrats are deciding how much of a battle to make over a Supreme Court nominee. Senate hearings start in two weeks for John Roberts. After responding quietly at first, some, though not all, Democrats are raising concerns about President Bush's choice to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. They're focusing on thousands of pages showing Roberts' work in earlier administrations. The White House has withheld some documents, but the papers released so far are enough to catch the attention of Senator Patrick Leahy. He's the senior Democrat on the committee that holds the hearings.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I want to know whether a Judge Roberts can set aside the John Roberts who was an acolyte for a rather extreme political agenda.

INSKEEP: Is there...

Sen. LEAHY: I would ask the same thing if I saw somebody who had been that much of an advocate on the left.

INSKEEP: Is there a specific position paper, a memo or statement that you would point to, that makes you think John Roberts appears extreme?

Sen. LEAHY: Well, there are several that have worried me on everything from areas of affirmative action to women's rights. I was concerned about his response to then-Congresswoman Olympia Snowe and others.

INSKEEP: What was the response to Congresswoman Olympia Snowe?

Sen. LEAHY: Well, the whole issue was on equal pay for women, and he was almost dismissive when he spoke of this perceived gender gap. Well, at that time especially, there was no question women were paid less than men across the board for virtually every kind of occupation there was. We still have a problem, but at that time, it was very, very significant. And I contrast this to Sandra Day O'Connor, who, in very similar things, made it very clear that she knew there was a gender gap and that women were treated differently.

INSKEEP: Senator, as you know, John Roberts' defenders have said, among other things, that President Bush won the election and Republicans control the Senate. Why should he not have the right to...

Sen. LEAHY: But this is not a political office. This is a lifetime appointment for all Americans.

INSKEEP: Although the president gets to appoint the Supreme Court justices.

Sen. LEAHY: And the...

INSKEEP: Why shouldn't he have the right to appoint someone with a conservative judicial philosophy?

Sen. LEAHY: No, it's a very good ques--he has an absolute right to nominate. He doesn't get to appoint anybody. But then the Senate has a duty, under the advise and consent, to vote whether this person is actually somebody there who'll be there for all Americans. It's somewhat different than if you're nominating somebody to be a member of your Cabinet. They're only going to be there as long as the president is there. Here's somebody who could be there beyond President Bush's lifetime or the lifetime of most of the members of the Senate who will vote on him.

INSKEEP: When John Bolton was nominated by the president to be United Nations ambassador, his nomination was prevented from going through the Senate partly by demands for more information. Democrats said there needed to be more information. Is there enough information about John Roberts?

Sen. LEAHY: I don't know. I'm still reading it. I just got another huge pile of material today. I don't expect to make any decision whether I'll vote for him or against him until he's had a chance to have his hearing and have a chance to be heard.

INSKEEP: There are some documents that the White House has declined to release, particularly from his time as a senior policy advisor in the Bush White House. Do you need to see those documents in order to proceed?

Sen. LEAHY: It would make it a lot easier to have those documents. After all, he was there working for all Americans. There's no attorney-client privilege, and they ought to make it available.

INSKEEP: Do you think there might be anything in those papers that is any different from the thousands of documents you've already seen?

Sen. LEAHY: I have no idea. I have no idea. That's why I'd like to see them. I think if there's nothing in there that creates any problem, I can't imagine why the White House wouldn't release them.

INSKEEP: Are there enough senators, Democrats in particular, who have concerns about John Roberts that you think you could stop the nomination with a filibuster if it came to that?

Sen. LEAHY: But, you see, this--you know, I think it's premature to even ask such a question. Let's see how the hearings go. You use the example of John Bolton, and I do not place him in that category. But John Bolton ran into problems because it turns out, as the hearings went on, we found out more and more about his conduct; conduct that frightened a lot of people, including a lot of Republicans.

INSKEEP: Do you know anything about John Roberts' conduct that is not publicly...

Sen. LEAHY: That's why we're going to have the hearing.

INSKEEP: Patrick Leahy is a Democratic senator from Vermont and the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks very much.

Sen. LEAHY: Great talking with you.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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