Roberts cool amid interruptions

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

WASHINGTON — U.S. Supreme Court nominee John Roberts jousted with Democratic senators today at his confirmation hearing to become chief justice, dodging their attempts to pin down his opinions on abortion, voting rights and other legal issues.

Roberts said he felt a landmark 1973 ruling legalizing abortion was “settled as a precedent” and that the Constitution provides a right to privacy. The Supreme Court has based its abortion rulings on a right to privacy that justices say is implicit in the Constitution.

But when senators pressed for details on his opinions — even to the point of interrupting his answers — Roberts said repeatedly that he shouldn't address some issues that could come before the Supreme Court with him as chief justice.

At one point, Sen. Joe Biden, a Democrat who has indicated he may run for president in 2008, accused Roberts of “filibustering.”

“Go ahead and continue not to answer,” said Biden. Later, he interrupted Roberts and when criticized, insisted, “His answers are misleading, with all due respect.”

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute! They may be misleading but they are his answers,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which was holding the hearings.

Roberts — who had noted that Biden earlier would have heard a whole answer if he hadn't interrupted — kept his cool.

“With respect, they are my answers and with respect, they are not misleading,” he said.

Roberts was nominated by President George W. Bush to succeed the late William H. Rehnquist. Bush originally nominated Roberts to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court's crucial swing vote who announced her plans to retire in July. Within days of Rehnquist's death on Sept. 3, Bush tapped Roberts to be chief justice.

If confirmed, the 50-year-old Roberts would be the youngest chief justice in 200 years, with the power to shape the high court for decades. Democrats and Republicans see no major obstacles to his winning Senate approval and joining the other justices when the new term begins Oct. 3.

Senators questioned Roberts on abortion, privacy, voting rights, and the balance of power between the branches of government. They touched on a few First Amendment issues, including the public-forum doctrine and pornography. Roberts frequently answered analytically through the prism of legal precedent but declined to address specifics.

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in American politics. Because of Roberts' conservative ideology and Catholic faith, some abortion-rights advocates fear he could try to reverse past rulings. The Roman Catholic Church strongly opposes abortion.

The nominee dismissed any suggestion that his Catholic faith would influence his decisions if he were confirmed.

Roberts said that the heart of the abortion ruling is “settled as a precedent of the Court, entitled to respect under principles of stare decisis,” the concept that long-established rulings should be given extra weight, Roberts said.

“There's nothing in my personal views based on faith or other sources that would prevent me from applying the precedent of the Court faithfully under the principles of stare decisis,” Roberts said.

Still, review and revisions have been the hallmark of the high court on issues from integration to gay rights, and Roberts indicated that groundbreaking cases can draw a second look.

Democrats pressed the appellate judge about his writings on civil rights while a young lawyer in the Reagan administration two decades ago. Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy described some of those writings on voting rights as a “narrow, cramped and mean-spirited view” that failed to show a full appreciation of discrimination.

Under questioning from Kennedy, Roberts said that he had no problem with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “The constitutionality has been upheld, and I don't have any issue with that.”

That failed to assuage Kennedy, who spoke critically and at length about Roberts' writings. Kennedy was interrupted several times by Specter, who told him to let Roberts speak.

Questioned about rights of privacy, the appellate judge cited several constitutional amendments and said, “The Court has explained that the liberty protected is not limited to freedom from physical restraint.”

On another issue, Roberts said the Constitution specifically gives the power to declare war to Congress, and in response to questions about interrogation and torture, said, “No one is above the law and that includes the president.”

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