He also stressed he would be guided by the law and not his personal opinion on matters like the right to die.
“I do think the chief justice has a particular obligation to try to achieve consensus consistent with everyone’s individual oath to uphold the Constitution, and that would certainly be a priority for me if I were confirmed,” Roberts told senators.
Experts said that although Roberts would need to wrestle with opinions from eight other strong-willed and experienced jurists, the new chief justice could still have a clarifying impact on the court and its decisions.
“In our history when it has been made a priority it has changed things … clarity matters whether you are a Supreme Court justice or a lowly journalist and I think one can criticize Justice O’Connor’s writing for not being clear from where I sit and too much 5-to-4ism is itself a statement,” The Boston Globe’s Tom Oliphant said.
Roberts also reiterated that his personal views and stances on issues should not enter into his consideration for the role of the chief justice.
“I’m not standing for election, and it is contrary to the role of judges in our society to say that this judge should go on the bench because these are his or her positions, and those are the positions they’re going to apply,” Roberts said. “Judges go on the bench, and they apply and decide cases according to the judicial process, not on the basis of promises made earlier to get elected or promises made earlier to get confirmed. That’s inconsistent with the independence and integrity of the Supreme Court.”
One of the major issues raised by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and others during another grueling session of questioning, focused on the recent decision by the court to allow a local community to seize a person’s property in favor of shopping malls or other private development to generate tax revenue.
“This body and legislative bodies in the states are protectors of the people’s rights,” Roberts said, adding he had been surprised when he heard of the court’s ruling.
For analysts who have been watching Roberts, the answer illuminated his approach to the law and the courts.
“He believes courts have limited roles, judges have defined responsibilities and one of those responsibilities is to give clear guidance, clear decisions and in a limited way respecting that the legislatures … also have important powers in protecting rights,” Jan Crawford Greenburg, NewsHour regular and Chicago Tribune correspondent, said Wednesday.
Roberts did face questioning from Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who expressed anger with the way members of the Supreme Court had limited congressional authority in several critical issues.
“I take umbrage at what the court has said and so do my colleagues. There isn’t a method of reasoning which changes when you move across the green from the Senate columns to the Supreme Court columns,” Specter said. “And we do our homework, evidenced by what has gone on in this hearing, and we don’t like being treated as school children, requiring, as Justice Scalia says, a taskmaster.”
Roberts said he would recognize the authority of each branch of government.
“I don’t think the court should be the Congress’ taskmaster,” Roberts said. “The Constitution is the court’s taskmaster and it’s Congress’ taskmaster as well.”
Specter hoped to have wrapped up questioning of Roberts by the end of Wednesday and after the two days of questioning, his confirmation by the committee and the full Senate appeared inevitable.
At one point, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, “If people can’t vote for you, then I doubt that they can vote for any Republican nominee.”
But some Democrats expressed frustration with the jurist’s responses. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., called the process “this Kabuki dance we have in these hearings here, as if the public doesn’t have a right to know what you think about fundamental issues facing them.”
“Without any knowledge of your understanding of the law — because you will not share it with us — we are rolling the dice with you, judge,” Biden said.