Roberts' Senate hearing begins

Senate Democrats and Republicans sparred over

the appropriateness of questioning John Roberts about divisive
issues as the Senate opened confirmation hearings Monday on
President Bush's choice to be the nation's chief justice.

Democrats said the 50-year-old Roberts could shape the Supreme Court for a generation if he confirmed to replace the late William H. Rehnquist and therefore all questions were fair game.

Republicans advised Roberts to follow the example set by recent nominees to the high court and avoid responding to probing questions on controversial topics.

"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."

"Don't take the bait," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in his prepared statement.

Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin dismissed the notion that Republican calls for a dignified confirmation process barred senators from pursuing a line of questions.

"If by dignified they mean that tough questions are out of bounds, I must strongly disagree," Feingold said. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee that conducted Monday's hearing, underscored the stakes for the Senate's vote on Roberts, an honors graduate from Harvard, a political appointee in two Republican administrations and a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia for two years.

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.

"Your prospective stewardship of the court, which could last until 2040 or longer ... would present a very unique opportunity for a new chief justice to rebuild the image of the court away from what many believe it has become as a super-legislature and bring consensus to the court," Specter said.

The journey began for Roberts in the ornate Russell Senate Caucus Room, where he quietly sat and watched as Specter gaveled the hearing to order. The day was devoted solely to opening statements - from the 17 men and one woman on the committee, the three senators chosen to introduce Roberts and from the nominee himself.

Roberts introduced members of his family: parents, siblings, his wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, and his young children, Jack and Josie.

"You see she has a very tight grasp," Roberts said of his wife, who held the two children. An ebullient Jack Roberts had nearly upstaged his father when the president announced his nomination on July 19.

Democrats promised to use the days of hearings to question Roberts on abortion, civil rights, privacy, election rights, capital punishment, judicial activism and the powers of the presidency and Congress.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said the Senate must determine whether Roberts "has demonstrated a commitment to the constitutional principles that have been so vital in advancing fairness, decency and equal opportunity in our society."

He added that the Senate was not a rubber stamp for the president's judicial choices and the hearings amounted to a job interview for the American people.

Republicans warned Roberts against responding to "litmus-test questions."

"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," Cornyn said.

Abortion and the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized the procedure loomed large.

"Perhaps the Supreme Court's most notorious exercise of raw political power came in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, two 1973 cases which invented a constitutional right to abortion," Brownback said.

Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the only woman on the committee, said in her prepared statement that she planned to ask Roberts about "the constitutional right to privacy" as it deals with abortion rights.

"I am concerned by a trend on the court to limit this right and curtail women's autonomy," Feinstein said. "It would be very difficult for me to vote to confirm someone to the Supreme Court whom I knew would overturn Roe v. Wade."

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 could affect the confirmation vote by the full Senate, expected before the end of September. The Supreme Court begins a new term Oct. 3.

"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.

Democrats planned to focus on 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.

Sixteen Democratic senators, including potential presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John Kerry of Massachusetts, reiterated the party's call for the Bush administration to release those documents.

"The people deserve to know the complete truth about Judge Roberts, the good and the bad alike," they said in a letter to the White House.