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Senate Hearings Set to Open for Chief Justice Nominee

Senate Hearings Set to Open for Chief Justice Nominee


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Less than three years after first donning a judge's robe, John Glover Roberts Jr. is on a path toward speedy confirmation for becoming, at age 50, chief justice of the United States.

A turbulent week that included the funeral of William H. Rehnquist, his mentor and the man he hopes to replace, his renomination by President Bush for chief justice and controversy over the government's tardy response to Hurricane Katrina has not dampened Roberts' candidacy to join the Supreme Court.

Republicans and Democrats see no serious obstacle to Roberts' confirmation. Liberal, civil rights, civil libertarian and abortion rights groups have come out against him but not one of the Senate's 100 members has declared opposition.

"I expect these hearings will show that you have the appropriate philosophy to lead our nation into the future," said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and a Judiciary Committee member, in a written copy of his opening statement.

The committee was to open what is expected to be a four- or five-day hearing Monday. How Roberts answers questions from the panel's 18 members about his record as a conservative lawyer in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations will play heavily into the confirmation vote by the full Senate, expected before the end of September. The Supreme Court begins a new term Oct. 3.

Roberts originally was chosen to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. But Rehnquist's death prompted the president to renominate him for chief justice, putting him in position to shape the court, possibly for decades.

Senate Democrats have bitterly fought Bush's attempts to move the federal judiciary to the right. They plan even more intense questioning of Roberts now that he is slated to move all the way from a junior judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to the top spot on the Supreme Court.

"The tragedy of Katrina shows in the starkest terms why every American needs an effective national government that will step in to meet urgent needs that individual states and communities cannot meet on their own," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said in a statement prepared for the opening of hearings.

The Massachusetts Democrat called Roberts an "intelligent, well-educated and serious man" but said the Senate "must also determine whether he has demonstrated a commitment to the constitutional principles that have been so vital in advancing fairness, decency and equal opportunity in our society."

Senators planned to use Tuesday and Wednesday to question Roberts on abortion, civil rights, election rights, capital punishment, the meaning of the Constitution, judicial activism and the powers of the presidency and the Congress.

Some Democrats on the Judiciary Committee were displeased in 2003 when Roberts evaded their questions during hearings on his appeals court nomination.

"This hearing is the only opportunity for the American people to examine what kind of justice John Roberts will dispense," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the committee, in an advance copy of his opening statement.

Republicans will warn Roberts against responding to "litmus-test questions," though, with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, using his opening statement to say that answering such questions would be giving in to liberal interest groups who "only want judges who will do their political bidding on the bench, regardless of what is required by the law and the Constitution."

"Don't take the bait," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in his prepared statement. "Do exactly the same thing every nominee, Republican and Democrat alike, has done. Decline to answer any question 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."

Roberts also will face questions on his ability to lead the current roster of eight strong-willed justices, all older and with more experience.

"The next chief justice will have the potential to change the court's image in the eyes of many as a superlegislature and to bring consensus to the court which has made a hallmark of 5-4 decisions, many of which are inexplicable," committee chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said in his prepared opening statement.

Democrats will focus on his Roberts' tenure as principal deputy solicitor general in the first Bush administration. That office supervises and conducts government litigation in the Supreme Court, and dealt with such divisive issues as abortion and prisoners' rights during Roberts' time.

The White House has released more than 70,000 documents from Roberts' time in the Reagan administration but has refused to release the solicitor general documents.

Absent a sudden surprise, however, Roberts is likely on his way to confirmation.

He can be confirmed by a majority vote of the 100-member Senate, and most of its 55 Republicans praise his qualifications, intellect and demeanor. None of the 44 Democrats or independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont have publicly opposed him, and several centrist Democrats praised Roberts after meeting with him last month.

The only way Democrats can block Roberts is by filibuster, but they would need almost all of their caucus to make it feasible -- an unlikely scenario. Only one Supreme Court nominee has ever been successfully filibustered: Justice Abe Fortas, who in 1968 was blocked by the Senate from becoming chief justice.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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