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Mr. Bush’s High Court Nominee

July 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now some reaction from the Senate and to, first to Sen. Ben Nelson, Democrat from Nebraska; he’s one of the leaders of the so-called Gang of 14, a bipartisan group of senators who want to avoid filibusters and other bitter combat over judicial nominations.

Senator, welcome. First, what is your reaction to the John Roberts choice?

SEN. BEN NELSON: Well I think no one was really expecting John Roberts’ name to come out tonight. As a matter of fact, I have some information right here that came out from some of the special interest groups attacking Edith Clement with the assumption that she was going to be the nominee. I wouldn’t suggest that the White House send out a decoy, but it appears some of the people shot the decoy and instead of waiting for John Roberts.

JIM LEHRER: But what is your own reaction to John Roberts?

SEN. BEN NELSON: Well, I don’t know enough to really have a full sense of what he would be on the bench, but based on what we’re hearing right now, it looks like a good resume. But the confirmation process is a very good one. I think what we’ll see is the Judiciary Committee, not the Gang of 14, go through the process of confirming the background, vetting his decisions, and coming up with a recommendation and ultimately a decision to put the name out or not put the name out.

JIM LEHRER: The Gang of 14, one of you all’s major points was that it would take an extraordinary issue to cause a filibuster that you all would support. Have you heard anything yet about John Roberts that you find extraordinary in terms of a filibuster possibility?

SEN. BEN NELSON: Certainly nothing at this point in time. And there’s a lot of process yet to be played out –


SEN. BEN NELSON: — in the confirmation effort by the Judiciary Committee. But I’m confident that the Judiciary Committee in the ordinary course of business will do a great job of going through the decisions and looking to see if there is any kind of information that would bear on this candidate, this nominee’s ability to serve on the Supreme Court. I’m anxious to see that process go through. I know they’ll take the necessary time in order to do it appropriately. And I’m anxious to see what their deliberations result in.

JIM LEHRER: Have you talked to any of your fellow or sister 14s, actually it would be 13, adding you to it, since this nominee became known about an hour before the president announced it?

SEN. BEN NELSON: No, I haven’t. I was on the floor earlier when I think the general belief was that it might be Judge Clement, but I’ve not had that opportunity. I suspect tomorrow morning we will start talking. We’re looking at having a meeting on Thursday morning and so I know that there will be a lot of discussion between now and then.

But I think this Gang of 14 is looking for the process to work on its own with — without really any involvement on our part. We’re hopeful that that’s what will happen with this now being presented to the Judiciary Committee.

JIM LEHRER: So you don’t — it would be a mistake from your point of view at least sitting there tonight at least to expect the Gang of 14 to come up with a position on this nominee, that the 14 of you would agree, okay, we’re all going to vote for it or some of us are going to do this or whatever. Forget that idea, right?

SEN. BEN NELSON: That’s not going to happen and it shouldn’t happen. We’ve never tried to present ourselves as a super Judiciary Committee. We just simply wanted to stop the process in the way it was going where there were more filibusters than we thought were appropriate, but at the same time get away from all the conversation about a nuclear option and changing the rules of the Senate in such a manner as was being talked about.

So our rule has been, I think, to create an environment, which I believe has happened where this nomination can proceed in the ordinary course of business. That was our goal. It looks like we’re on our way. And we’re going to watch it very carefully but that’s what we hope will happen.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe in an either indirect or even direct way that yours and others in this group’s joint action has even influenced the president’s decision, in other words, choosing somebody like John Roberts who had previously been confirmed by the Senate by a unanimous vote, et cetera?

SEN. BEN NELSON: Well, I don’t know that that’s the case. But I can tell you that the president was very quick to pick up on the suggestion for advice and consent when that was made part of our agreement. He reached out to so many of the senators; I think I’ve heard maybe as many as 60 senators getting input. And it seems tonight from what he said that he reached out to Democrats: Sen. Harry Reid, as well as Sen. Pat Leahy.

I think he’s done the right thing here in terms of reaching out to members of the Senate. I can’t tell you that that wouldn’t have happened without the Gang of 14, but I can tell that it certainly what we were after. And I think we’re all pleased that it’s worked the way that it has.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Sen. Nelson, thank you very much for being with us tonight.

SEN. BEN NELSON: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: And Speaking of the Senate earlier tonight several Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee talked to reporters about the Roberts’ nomination. Among them was Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: There’s no question that Judge Roberts has outstanding legal credentials and an appropriate legal temperament and demeanor, but his actual judicial record is limited to only two years on the D.C. Circuit Court. For the rest of his career, he has been arguing cases as an able lawyer for others, leaving many of his personal views unknown.

For these reasons, it is vital that Judge Roberts answer a wide range of questions openly, honestly and fully in the coming months. His views will affect a generation of Americans, and it is his obligation during the nomination process to let the American people know those views. The burden is on a nominee to the Supreme Court to prove that he is worthy, not on the Senate to prove that he is unworthy.

I voted against Judge Roberts for the D.C. Court of Appeals because he didn’t answer questions fully and openly when he appeared before the committee. For instance, when I asked him a question that others have answered to identify three Supreme Court cases of which he was critical, he refused.

But now it’s a whole new ballgame: For those of us who voted against him, for those of us who voted for him and for Judge Roberts.

JIM LEHRER: We’ll pick this up in a minute. But first, let’s go back to the Capital where Republican Sen. John Cornyn from Texas has also talked to reporters. He’s also a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee; he’s also a former Texas attorney general and a former state Supreme Court Justice in Texas.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: I think the president has chosen well. He’s chosen a known quantity. In addition to his service on the bench, Justice Roberts has done something that not very many lawyers have had a chance to do. He’s argued 39 cases before the United States Supreme Court. So he knows the court both from the standpoint of a lawyer but, more importantly, representing clients or people before that court in contested cases.

I think the comments I would make have to do with what I hope will be a dignified and orderly process leading to an up-or-down vote in the Senate, which would allow Judge Roberts to be confirmed before the court reconvenes the first Monday in October.

We know that now there is plenty of time available for this process to move forward. The good thing from that — from a preparation standpoint — is he’s already had the normal background investigations both by the FBI as well as the American Bar Association and other groups as well as the full Senate Judiciary Committee; so he is again a known quantity. So there should not be any real surprises.

I think the one thing that is important besides the timeliness and the — of the proceeding is going to be what types of questions will be asked and what kind of answers can be expected from a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

First of all, it’s clear that any senator can ask any question he or she wants, but it’s also clear that it’s not appropriate for a nominee to pre-judge cases, to give pledges of commitment to a particular outcome on sensitive issues that may come before the court. And that has been the norm in the Senate for a long, long time.

JIM LEHRER: That was Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, former attorney general, former member of the Texas Supreme Court.