Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., launched the first day of questioning by asking about Roberts’ views of the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion. Specter, a supporter of abortion rights, asked if the ruling was a “super-duper precedent” in light of efforts to overturn it.
Roberts said, “It’s settled as a precedent of the court, entitled to respect under principles of stare decisis,” a Latin term for the doctrine that says courts are bound by previous decisions or precedents, reported the Associated Press.
The candidate dismissed the notion that his Catholic faith would influence his decisions if he were confirmed as the nation’s 17th chief justice. The Roman Catholic Church opposes abortion.
In general, Roberts answered questions through the prism of legal precedent but did not answer specifics, generating frustration among some Democratic senators.
“Go ahead and continue not to answer,” said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., at one point as Specter urged him to give Roberts a chance to respond.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., pressed Roberts on some of his writings on civil rights when he was a legal counsel for the Reagan administration. Kennedy described them as containing a “narrow, cramped and mean-spirited view,” and asked him his opinion of the Voting Rights Act.
Roberts said he had no problem with the 1965 act. “The constitutionality has been upheld, and I don’t have any issue with that,” he said, according to the AP.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, brought up the balance of power between the executive branch and Congress, and said Roberts’ past writings seemed to dismiss the legislature. Leahy ended up asking Roberts if the president would be exempt from the law if he endorsed the use of torture in interrogation of enemy prisoners.
Roberts replied, “Senator, I believe that no one is above the law under our system, and that includes the president. The president is fully bound by the law, the constitution and statutes.”
Some of the Republicans on the committee used the hearing to point out other issues with the current Supreme Court. Sen. Jon Kyle of Arizona said he was troubled by “the Supreme Court’s reliance, or even reference to, foreign law to determine the meaning of the United States Constitution.”
Roberts answered that foreign precedent “allows the judge to incorporate his or her own personal preferences, cloak them with the authority of precedent — because they’re finding precedent in foreign law — and use that to determine the meaning of the Constitution.”
“And I think that’s a misuse of precedent, not a correct use of precedent,” he said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to continue questioning Roberts into the evening and again on Wednesday.
If confirmed this time, Roberts, 50, would be the youngest chief justice in 200 years.
President Bush has urged senators to confirm Roberts by the Oct. 3 start of the new Supreme Court term.
The president still must find a replacement for retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, considered a moderate swing vote on the high court.