GWEN IFILL: Now, a newsmaker interview with a pivotal player in the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Arlen Specter is 75 years old, battling hodgkins' lymphoma and preparing for the biggest challenge of his Senate career. As the Republican Judiciary Committee chairman, he is set to oversee the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts when they begin Sept. 6. These will be the first such hearings in more than a decade, but Specter is no stranger to high profile controversy. In 1987, the former district attorney cross-examined, and then crossed party lines, to be the sole Republican to vote against President Reagan's Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: You said it was controversial. I think it was that controversial because there was no legal underpinning for it.
ROBERT BORK: Senator, I think there was.
GWEN IFILL: Then in 1991, Specter took the lead in attempting to discredit Anita Hill, the law professor who charged then-nominee Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: How could you allow this kind of reprehensible conduct to go on right in the headquarters without doing something about it?
ANITA HILL: Well, it was a very trying and difficult decision for me not to say anything further.
GWEN IFILL: Thomas was confirmed with Specter's support, but the Pennsylvania senator outraged many feminists. Specter has also made his Republican colleagues uneasy, supporting issues like abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. So Republicans, Democrats and activists of all stripes are gearing up for September's hearings. Last week, lead Judiciary Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy called Roberts' views "right wing and radical," while Republicans have pressed the committee to avoid detailed questions on Roberts' stance on abortion, and other hot-button social issues. In the middle of it all, Arlen Specter is busily preparing to take on all comers. I sat down with him at his Senate office today.
GWEN IFILL: Welcome, Senator Specter.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Thank you very much for coming in to visit with me.
GWEN IFILL: In your 25 years in the Senate you've been through nine of these kinds of hearings, these Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Now you're chairman -- big job, a lot of responsibility. What have you learned from those past experiences that will inform you in this one?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I have learned that the justices have enormous power in our society and on their five to four decisions they decide all of the cutting-edge questions, that they have taken over a great deal of Congress' authority in striking down very important legislation which we enact. For example, to protect women against violence, key provisions are declared unconstitutional because the court does not think we have a sufficient factual record where I think we have a very extensive record. They have challenged our method of reasoning, and I do not believe they have any stature to say that our reasoning is deficient to theirs so that when we select people for the Supreme Court, I think that the Senate is under a very heavy responsibility to do our best to have a proper allocation of power among the branches of government.
GWEN IFILL: You've written a letter to Judge Roberts asking him about your concerns about the powers of Congress. Is that something you plan to press very hard on during the hearings?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Yes, I do. I think that it's important for the hearing to determine an idea of Judge Roberts' jurisprudence, his approach to the cases. I do not intend to ask him about specific cases, but I do think that on the separation of powers, it is a fair question to ask him about Supreme Court decisions.
And when Chief Justice Rehnquist challenges our, quote, method of reasoning, unquote, I want to know if he's going to accord proper respect for what Congress does.
GWEN IFILL: You said originally after your first post nomination meeting with him that he would seem to be a man of modesty and stability. Does that still hold?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, yes. Gwen, I asked him a question about the characterizations. Everybody says he's conservative. And I asked him about the traditional labels of moderate, liberal, conservative. I don't like labels. I think they conceal more than they reveal, sort of like a bikini. So I asked him if he was comfortable with any of the labels. He said to me, no, he wasn't, that he would prefer to consider himself on the characterizations of modesty and he liked the characterization of stability. And we have read a lot of his writings at an early age when he was an advisor on the attorney general's staff in the early '80s and read some of his work for White House counsel. And he has very pronounced views. Maybe he's changed some of them. Maybe they don't apply to the Supreme Court cases. And those are fair areas of inquiry.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about some of those views. In some of those documents, he has said that he has -- he's criticized affirmative action. He's criticized comparable worth for women workers, and he's raised some questions about voting rights. Do any of those writings that you have reviewed raise any red flags for you?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, they raise yellow lights. They raise cautionary lights. I wouldn't say that they were a red light or a red flag to stop. But they're appropriate to inquire into. When he has talked about women's rights and comparable worth, he wrote about that more than 20 years ago. And I think times have changed and maybe some of his views have changed. When he was asked about women as lawyers, he made some comments which were subject to question. But now we know he has a very distinguished wife who is a very distinguished lawyer. So perhaps some of his views are different. And that's what the hearing is for, to find out.
GWEN IFILL: So you think he was joking when he said that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to convince housekeepers to become lawyers?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Listen, every now and then people are entitled to a little humor among all of the seriousness, but I wouldn't pre-judge him on that. But I think it's a fair question to ask him.
GWEN IFILL: Talk about the questions that are fair to ask. As you know, a lot of the Phyllis Schaflys of the world, conservative Republicans, are concerned that you'll be asking too pointed series of questions in this hearing and that you will end up on the Democratic side of the aisle in this questioning technique.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I believe that when you are confirming a United States Supreme Court Justice, that it really isn't Democratic or Republican; it's American. And I believe that all of us have a duty to ask dignified, appropriate, probing questions to find out where Judge Roberts stands. And I'm not going to cross the line or come near the line of asking him how he's going to decide specific questions.
GWEN IFILL: As you pursue these areas of inquiry, what should Americans, who we assume will be paying great attention to these proceedings, what should they be listening for? And what would you be listening for?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: We should be listening to see how he approaches these issues. When he talked about stability, that is a very important item; one of the big considerations in these hearings is obviously going to be Roe versus Wade and a woman's right to choose. And when you talk about stability, we have had the decision standing as U.S. law since 1973.
GWEN IFILL: Do you think that's going to be a big issue?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, there's no doubt that a woman's right to choose is a major concern. And it will be a subject for discussion. And some of my colleagues on the Judiciary Committee have suggested they want a flat-out commitment from Judge Roberts -- and I do not believe it is appropriate -- but there are different ways of approaching the subject in terms of precedence where we have Roe versus Wade, which has been the law of the land for 32 years. And it came up for reconsideration in 1992, a case called Casey versus Planned Parenthood, where the opinion was written by three justices appointed by Republican presidents upholding a woman's right to choose: Justice Kennedy, very strong pro-life; Justice O'Connor, pro-life; Justice Souter, appointed by President Bush the elder --
GWEN IFILL: So stability to you means maintaining that record?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Stability means respecting precedents. Now it is not an absolute rule and if you take a case like segregation where you had Plessey versus Ferguson, separate but equal to keep the races apart, that was overruled 58 years after it was in the law where times had changed and expectations were -- it was a different America in 1954 than 1896 -- so it's a matter of judgment. And I want to find out about Judge Roberts' judgment as you approach these big issues.
GWEN IFILL: You got in a little bit of hot water before these hearings began by suggesting that someone who might overturn Roe versus Wade would not be able to be confirmed. Do you still believe that?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I believe that it is a critical question in American life today and that there has been substantial focus by the pro-life advocates, substantial focus by those who believe in a woman's right to choose and the women's groups. I've never believed in a litmus test, Gwen. I voted for -- to confirm Chief Justice Rehnquist even though he voted against Roe versus Wade, Justice Scalia. But I think it is a factor very much on people's minds.
GWEN IFILL: You and Sen. Leahy famously get along very well, the ranking Democrat on the committee. Lately he has stepped up his criticism of Judge Roberts, as have other Democrats. Is that going to make your job tougher?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Listen, they have their point of view. Let them express it. Let them ask their questions. Let them vote as they choose. Let's hear Judge Roberts out. Let's not come to conclusions in advance. I have said that I'm reserving my judgment until I hear him testify.
GWEN IFILL: So how are you preparing for these hearings?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Meticulously. I am reading all of his cases. I am going over volumes of materials. I have a large staff, which is feeding me material. Earlier you photographed my desk. And those are a small part of the materials I'm reading.
GWEN IFILL: Do you think you have the confidence of White House and of other Republicans to run these hearings in the way they would prefer?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I believe I have the confidence of the president and my colleagues in the United States Senate on both sides of the aisle. I have supported President Clinton's nominees when I thought they were fit for the job. I have supported and opposed Republican nominees. I am still hearing about my vote against Judge Bork, and I'm still hearing about my questioning of Professor Hill. And I called those shots as I saw them and I think that history will vindicate me on them, Gwen. And I'm preparing for the Roberts' hearings. And I intend to go right down the middle, and it is a hearing for Americans not a hearing for Republicans or Democrats or any of the so-called groups.
GWEN IFILL: And, finally, many Americans know you have been struggling with cancer. You have completed your chemotherapy round. So the question becomes how is your health? How are you feeling?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, a bigger question than my health, Gwen, is how is my hair? I see pictures of myself and I don't recognize myself. I have been a victim of identity theft. I have completed the chemotherapy. And during the course of the chemotherapy from February through July, I've been able to keep all my duties. I haven't missed a beat, and as I've said in the past, I've beat a lot of tough opponents. I beat a brain tumor. I beat bypass surgery. I beat a lot of tough political opponents. And I'm beating Hodgkin's cancer as well. I'm fine.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you very much for joining us, Senator.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: A great pleasure to be with you. Thank you for coming to visit me, Gwen.