Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts, Jr. presented himself to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday as a judge with no platform except a commitment to the rule of law and the high court's own independence and integrity.
"A certain humility should characterize the judicial role," Roberts told the 10 Republicans and eight Democrats on the committee. "Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around."
President Bush's choice to be Chief Justice of the United States spoke without notes for about seven minutes after nearly three hours of opening statements from the committee members who will make the initial decision on his elevation from the federal appeals court in Washington to the highest court in the land. The panel will begin putting questions to Roberts on Tuesday morning.
Democrats served notice they will press the former Reagan and first Bush administration lawyer to be forthcoming about his judicial philosophy, including his views on civil rights, women's rights, privacy, church and state, and separation of powers. Republicans counseled Roberts to be circumspect and to refuse to give answers or hints about how he would rule on cases to come before the court.
About the Author
Kenneth Jost, Supreme Court editor for CQ Press and contributing editor of CQ Weekly, has covered legal affairs as a reporter, editor and columnist since 1970.
In his own remarks Monday, Roberts was gracious, but remained general in describing his own concept of the role of the judiciary. He said his meetings with committee members — among the 53 senators he met with all told — had given him a "better understanding" of the committee's concerns in the confirmation process.
While senators described him as a conservative advocate of judicial restraint, Roberts avoided any ideological or philosophical label. "I come before the committee with no agenda," he said. "I have no platform."
"I have no agenda, but I do have a commitment," Roberts continued. "If I am confirmed, I will confront every case with an open mind. I will fully and fairly analyze the legal arguments that are presented. I will be open to the considered views of my colleagues on the bench. And I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability."
Roberts concluded by promising if confirmed to be "vigilant to protect the independence and integrity of the Supreme Court" and to "work to ensure that it upholds the rule of law and safeguards those liberties that make this land one of endless possibilities for all Americans."
If confirmed, Roberts would be the 17th Chief Justice of the United States and succeed William H. Rehnquist, whom Roberts served as law clerk in the court's 1980-81 term. Rehnquist died on Sept. 3 after a nearly year-long fight with thyroid cancer. Bush had originally named Roberts to succeed the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, but chose him instead for the chief justice's post two days after Rehnquist's death.
In Monday's hearing, Republicans had high praise for Roberts' abilities and his record as a government lawyer and then as a preeminent Supreme Court litigator in private practice. Bush named him to the federal appeals court for Washington in 2001, but judicial politics delayed his confirmation until May 2003.
None of the GOP senators voiced concerns on Monday about Roberts' views, though some of the junior members criticized recent Supreme Court decisions in such areas as abortion, church and state, capital punishment and property rights. Instead, they spent most of their time anticipating likely controversy over Roberts' answers or non-answers to Democrats' questions.
"Some have said that nominees who do not spill their guts about whatever a senator wants to know are hiding something from the American people," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "Some compare a nominee's refusal to violate his judicial oath or abandon judicial ethics to taking the Fifth Amendment. These might be catchy sound bites, but they are patently false."
"You have no obligation to tell us how you will rule on any issue that might come before you if you sit on the Supreme Court," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Several Democrats voiced strong concerns about conservative views Roberts had expressed while serving in the Reagan Justice Department and White House from 1981 to 1986. Among the 70,000 documents the White House has released from that period are Roberts' memos questioning the right to privacy, opposing affirmative action, minimizing discrimination against women, and endorsing limits on judicial tenure and the Supreme Court's powers.
"There are real and serious reasons to be deeply concerned about Judge Roberts' record," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said. Kennedy, the committee's senior member, played a pivotal role in the Senate's most recent rejection of a Supreme Court nominee: Robert Bork in 1987.
The committee's lone woman — Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California — specifically focused on the landmark 1973 abortion rights decision, Roe v. Wade. "It would be very difficult for me to vote to confirm someone to the Supreme Court whom I knew would overturn Roe v. Wade," she said.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., followed by threatening to vote "no" if Roberts avoided direct answers in what is now scheduled as two rounds of questioning by each senator on Tuesday and Wednesday. "You need to answer questions fully so we can ascertain your judicial philosophy," Schumer said.
Schumer, Kennedy and Illinois' Richard Durbin were the three committee members to vote against Roberts' confirmation for the appeals court post. Roberts went on to win Senate confirmation by unanimous consent without a recorded vote.
Democrats also pressed their requests for documents that the White House has refused to release, concerning cases that Roberts handled as the chief deputy solicitor general in the first Bush administration. Roberts appeared to be trying to assuage some of the Democrats' concerns about his previous views by noting in his statement that as a government lawyer, "My job was to argue cases for the United States before the Supreme Court."
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, sometimes a GOP maverick, vowed to conduct the hearing in "a full, fair, and dignified" manner. Other Republicans warned that liberal interest groups would try to politicize the hearings. But the committee's ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said "open and honest public conversation" with Roberts was "an important part" of the confirmation process.
Schumer provided perhaps the only new piece of information at the hearing, which, miraculously, ended 20 minutes ahead of schedule. In a portion of his prepared statement he did not deliver because of time constraints, the New York senator suggested Roberts may have had a change of heart on the privacy issue. Schumer said that despite Roberts' earlier statements referring to a "so-called right to privacy," the nominee said in their private meeting that he now believes that there is a "right of privacy that extends to the bedroom."
At 50, Roberts would be the youngest member of the court if confirmed — and the youngest chief justice since John Marshall assumed the post at age 45 in 1801. Roberts is also younger than all but two of the Judiciary Committee members — Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sam Brownback of Kansas.
Roberts ended his statement Monday by telling the senators, "I look forward to your questions." Some Republicans suggested the experience would be less than enjoyable. "Welcome to the pit," Iowa's Chuck Grassley said.