The Roberts Hearings Begin
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KWAME HOLMAN: Just before noon today, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee escorted Judge John Roberts into the historic Senate caucus room to begin the first Supreme Court confirmation hearings since 1994.
Roberts, originally chosen by President Bush to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, was re-nominated last week to be chief justice, following the death of William Rehnquist. If confirmed, Roberts would be the high court’s youngest leader in more than 200 years.
Roberts first introduced family members to the committee, then sat quietly for the next three and a half hours. That time was reserved for the committee’s 18 senators, each of whom took the allotted ten minutes to deliver opening statements.
Chairman Arlen Specter alerted fellow senators that he would allow wide latitude in the questioning of Roberts.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Senators have the right to ask whatever question they choose, and you, Judge Roberts, have the prerogative to answer the questions as you see fit, or not to answer them as you see fit.
KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, it was clear from the opening statements that Democrats and Republicans differ widely over the types of questions that should be asked and whether Roberts should answer them. Texas Republican John Cornyn warned Roberts responding to so-called litmus test questions.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Don’t take the bait. Do exactly what every nominee of every Republican president and every Democrat president has done. 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.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold said tough and probing questions are justified when a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court is at stake.
SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: It is not undignified to ask questions that press the nominee for his views on the important areas of the law that the Supreme Court confronts. It is not undignified to review and explore the nominee’s writings, his past statements, the briefs he’s filed, the memos he has written. It is not undignified to ask the nominee questions he would rather not answer, should he prefer to remain inscrutable or worse yet all things to all people.
KWAME HOLMAN: Utah Republican Orrin Hatch disagreed.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: The senators’ desire to know something is not the only consideration on the table. 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. 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.
KWAME HOLMAN: But New York Democrat Charles Schumer said Judge Roberts’ long career and private practice and short tenure as a federal judge leave important questions unanswered.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: In a sense, we have seen maybe 10 percent of you — just the visible tip of the iceberg — not the 90 percent that is still submerged. And we all know that it is the ice beneath the surface that can sink the ship.
For this reason, it is our obligation to ask, and your obligation to answer questions about your judicial philosophy and legal ideology.
KWAME HOLMAN: Beyond the debate over the propriety of questions, senators voiced concerns about several recent decisions by the high court. Ohio Republican Mike DeWine.
SEN. MIKE DeWINE: Many Americans believe that the Supreme Court is unmaking the very Constitution that our founders drafted, and many fear that our court is making policy when it repeatedly strikes down laws passed by elected members of Congress and elected members of the state legislatures.
I must tell you, Judge, I too am concerned. Judges are not members of Congress. They’re not elected. They’re not members of state legislatures, they’re not governors. They’re not presidents. Their job is not to pass laws, implement regulations, nor — nor to make policy.
KWAME HOLMAN: California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the only woman on the committee, said Roberts’ willingness to uphold Roe versus Wade was of paramount importance to her.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I’m concerned by a trend on the court to limit this right, and thereby to curtail the autonomy that we have fought for and achieved, in this case, over just simply controlling our own reproductive system, rather than having some politicians do it for us.
It would be very difficult for me to vote to confirm someone whom I knew would overturn Roe V. Wade.
KWAME HOLMAN: Once all 18 senators had spoken, Chairman Specter asked Judge John Roberts to stand.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: If you would raise your right hand and, they’ve asked know do this slowly because this is their one photo op. Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you will give before this committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
JUDGE JOHN ROBERTS: I do.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Thank you, you may be seated.
KWAME HOLMAN: It was now Judge Roberts’ turn to speak, and he did so without referring to notes.
JUDGE JOHN 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.
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. And judges have to have the modesty to be open in the decisional process to the considered views of their colleagues on the bench.
Mr. Chairman, when I worked in the Department of Justice in the Office of the Solicitor General, it was my job to argue cases for the United States before the Supreme Court. I always found it very moving to stand before the justices and say, I speak for my country.
But it was after I left the Department and began arguing cases against the United States that I fully appreciated the importance of the Supreme Court and our constitutional system.
Here was the United States, the most powerful entity in the world, aligned against my client, and yet all I had to do was convince the court that I was right on the law and the government was wrong, and all that power and might would recede, in deference to the rule of law. That is a remarkable thing. It is what we mean when we say that we are a government of laws and not of men. It is that rule of law that protects the rights and liberties of all Americans. It is the envy of the world, because without the rule of law, any rights are meaningless.
Mr. Chairman, 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. I have no agenda, but do I have a commitment. If I am confirmed, I will confront every case with an open mind. I will fully and fairly analyze the legal arguments that are presented. I will be open to the considered views of my colleagues on the bench. And I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor to the best of my ability. And I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat.
KWAME HOLMAN: Judge Roberts then paused to reflect on his boyhood days in Indiana.
JUDGE JOHN ROBERTS: I think all of us retain from the days of our youth certain enduring images. For me those images are of the endless fields of Indiana, stretching to the horizon, punctuated only by an isolated silo or a barn. And as I grew older, those endless fields came to represent for me the limitless possibilities of our great land.
Growing up, I never imagined that I would be here in this historic room, nominated to be the chief justice. But now that I am here, I recall those endless fields with their promise of infinite possibilities, and that memory inspires in me a very profound commitment.
If I am confirmed, I will be vigilant to protect the independence and integrity of the Supreme Court. And I will work to ensure that it upholds the rule of law and safeguards those liberties that make this land one of endless possibilities for all Americans.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, thank you members of the committee. I look forward to your questions.
KWAME HOLMAN: Judge Roberts will have an opportunity to answer those questions starting at 9:30 tomorrow morning when the hearings resume.