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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Supreme Court nominee John Roberts on Wednesday assured senators he would be guided by the law, not personal beliefs, on right-to-die cases. He also told the lawmakers that Congress can counter the court's decisions.
At the same time, Roberts stopped short of providing his specific views on issues -- as he has steadfastly done throughout three days of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. That chafed Democrats, who see his approval this month as almost a certainty.
"Without any knowledge of your understanding of the law -- because you will not share it with us -- we are rolling the dice with you, Judge," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who has wrangled with Roberts on privacy issues, right-to-die cases and whether judicial candidates should fully answer senators' questions.
Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate feel comfortable with President Bush's choice to succeed the late William H. Rehnquist as chief justice, and they challenged Democrats who might oppose Roberts' nomination to be the nation's 109th Supreme Court justice.
"If people can't vote for you, then I doubt that they can vote for any Republican nominee," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Republicans portrayed the appellate judge and former political appointee in the Reagan and first Bush administration as a brilliant legal scholar who is highly capable of leading the court for at least a generation. Bush chose Roberts to succeed the late Rehnquist, who died Sept. 3 of cancer.
Democrats praised him as well, but also pushed for him to express clear opinions on a wide variety of subjects -- eminent domain, voting rights, the death penalty, the use of foreign law by jurists.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., epitomized the frustration of Democrats with Roberts' answers.
"You are being less forthcoming with this committee than just about any other person who has come before us," said Schumer, who questioned why Roberts has offered his opinions on past cases in other forums but not at his confirmation hearing for chief justice.
"Why this room should be some kind of cone of silence is beyond me," Schumer said.
Roberts replied, "I think I have been more forthcoming than any of the other nominees." On right-to-die cases, the nominee would say little more than his oft-repeated response that it would be inappropriate to comment on cases that he might decide. "I will confront them with an open mind. They won't be based on my personal views. They will be based on my understanding of the law," he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pressed Roberts on whether in his personal life he would listen to a dying family member or want to rely on the government in making an end-of-life decision.
"You do want to understand and appreciate the views of the loved ones," Roberts said.
Early in his testimony on Wednesday, Roberts' second day of answering senators' questions, the nominee told Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., that Congress has the right to counter Supreme Court rulings including a divisive decision giving cities broad power to seize and raze people's homes for private development.
A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that cities can take and bulldoze people's homes in favor of shopping malls or other private development to generate tax revenue. The decision drew a scathing dissent from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as favoring rich corporations, and Republican lawmakers and some Democrats have criticized it as infringing on states' rights.
"This body and legislative bodies in the states are protectors of the people's rights," Roberts said. He said he had been surprised when he heard of the court's ruling.
Congress has been working on legislation that would ban the use of federal funds for any project that gets a go-ahead relying on the Kelo v. City of New London, Conn., decision.
Also on the question of congressional versus court authority, committee chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., bristled at lawmakers "being treated as schoolchildren" in criticism from some judges, including Justice Antonin Scalia.
Roberts said the Supreme Court was not the taskmaster of Congress. "The Constitution is the court's taskmaster and it's Congress' taskmaster as well," he said.
Roberts was pressed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., about the Voting Rights Act and a provision that allows the government to veto proposed changes in state or local election systems if they are deemed to have a discriminatory purpose or effect on minority voters.
"I have no basis for viewing this as constitutionally suspect," Roberts told Kennedy.
When it comes to abortion, Biden said Roberts had said just enough to assuage both sides a little.
"You've convinced the folks that share Senator Brownback's view that you're going to be just right for them, and you've convinced those who share Senator Kennedy's views that you're going to be just right for them," Biden said.
Roberts on Tuesday called Roe v. Wade "settled law," said there was a right to privacy and said cases that reaffirmed the right to abortion provided a "precedent of the court, entitled to respect." He did not say he would uphold Roe if it comes before the court, or that privacy rights were linked to abortion rights.
--Said if four justices voted for a stay of execution and a fifth vote were necessary to keep the appeal alive temporarily, he would cast the fifth vote. "I think that practice makes a lot of sense."
--Reiterated his opposition to the use of foreign law in rendering U.S. court decisions, but he rejected the notion that judges who do so are violating their oaths as some conservatives have argued.
--Argued for consistency by the court on cases related to religion and First Amendment rights of free speech, stemming from the confusion created by recent rulings on displays of the Ten Commandments.
The high court in the two decades that Rehnquist has served as chief justice has had many sharp divisions, reflected in 5-4 rulings on major cases including Bush v. Gore that decided the presidency in 2000.
Roberts contended that the chief justice has a responsibility to pursue agreement.
"I do think the chief justice has a particular obligation to try to achieve consensus consistent with everyone's individual oath to uphold the Constitution, and that would certainly be a priority for me if I were confirmed," said Roberts, whose promotion would be a lifetime appointment.
Roberts envisioned a heavier workload for the Supreme Court, saying he saw room for the court to handle more cases than the 70-80 it typically considers in a term. The court, he said, could "contribute more to the clarity and uniformity of the law."
On the Net: Senate Judiciary Committee: http://judiciary.senate.gov Supreme Court: http://supremecourtus.gov
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)