Senate Readies for Second Day of Roberts Hearings

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins its questioning of Judge John Roberts, President Bush's nominee to be the 17th chief justice of the United States. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) wasted no time in bringing up one of the key issues of the moment — Roe versus Wade, the landmark case that effectively legalized abortion.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Less than an hour ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee today began its questioning of Judge John Roberts, President Bush's nominee to be the chief justice of the United States. Committee Chairman, Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, wasted no time in bringing up a key issue, Roe vs. Wade, the landmark case that effectively legalized abortion. So far this morning, Roberts has declined to give his views on Roe, but he said legal precedent is, quote, "a very important consideration." NPR's Nina Totenberg has this report on how the hearings began yesterday.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

In opening statements, each side was laying down its markers. Democrat Charles Schumer.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): For me, the first criterion upon which I will base my vote is, whether you will answer questions fully and forthrightly. We do not want to trick you, badger you or play a game of got you. That is why I met with you privately three times and that's why I gave you a list of questions in advance of these hearings.

TOTENBERG: Republican John Cornyn.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Don't take the bait. Decline to answer any question that you feel would compromise your ability to do your job. The vast majority of the Senate, I am convinced, will not punish you for doing so.

TOTENBERG: Democrats made clear they would not shy away from a fight. California's Dianne Feinstein said she would find it very hard to vote for a nominee whom she knew would vote to reverse Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court's abortion decision. Feinstein said she remembered when abortions were illegal and she served on the state's Board of Terms and Parole.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I actually sentenced women who committed abortions to prison terms. I saw the morbidity. I saw the injuries they caused and I don't want to go back to those days. How the court decides future cases could determine whether both the beginning of life and the end of life decisions remain private or whether individuals could be subject to government intrusion or perhaps the risk of prison.

TOTENBERG: And Senator Joseph Biden pointed to legal memos that Roberts authored when he served in the Reagan administration, memos that opposed a variety of measures to eradicate race and gender discrimination; memos that questioned the constitutional legitimacy of regulatory agencies, and memos that question the Supreme Court's decisions on the constitutional right of privacy.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): Judge, if I look at only what you've said and written, as used to happen in the past, I would have to vote no. You dismissed the constitutional protection of privacy as quote, "a so-called right" and you dismissed gender discrimination as quote, "merely a perceived problem." This is your chance, Judge, to explain what you meant by what you have said. The Constitution provides for one democratic moment, Judge, one democratic moment before a lifetime of judicial independence. This is that moment.

TOTENBERG: But Republican Orrin Hatch, like other Republicans, urged the nominee not to be too forthcoming.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Some have said that nominees who did not spill their guts about whatever a senator wants to know are hiding something from the American people. That notion misleads the American people about what judges do and slanders good and honorable nominees who want to be both responsive to senators and protect their impartiality and independence.

TOTENBERG: Finally, it was time for Roberts to speak.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Judge JOHN ROBERTS (Supreme Court Nominee): I come before the committee with no agenda. I have no platform. Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes.

TOTENBERG: Roberts stressed his view on the limits of judging.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Judge ROBERTS: Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around. Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules, they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules, but it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire.

TOTENBERG: But he also spoke of the rule of law as a continuum.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Judge ROBERTS: Judges have to have the humility to recognize that they operate within a system of precedent shaped by other judges equally striving to live up to the judicial oath.

TOTENBERG: So just when, if ever, would he be willing to overturn past Supreme Court decisions? Decisions on abortion, privacy, discrimination, congressional power and religion? As committee Chairman Arlen Specter put it, Roberts will likely answer as many questions as he has to in order to be confirmed. And today's Q&A will be a subtle minuet. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: Analysis of the first day of hearing is at npr.org.

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