Democrats Faintly Echo Republicans' Loud Praise
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Republican senators quickly embraced the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court last night while Democrats reserved judgment, saying he would trigger neither immediate opposition nor instant acceptance from the minority party.
Democrats, who acknowledged that their ability to challenge any nominee is limited, appeared unable or unwilling to highlight weaknesses in Roberts's background, except for his dodging of some questions during his 2003 hearing before the Judiciary Committee. But they vowed to press him to explain his views on civil rights, abortion and other issues, warning that anything less than full disclosure could lead to a bruising fight on the Senate floor.
"I really do not expect any issues that go to the qualifications, the honesty, the integrity and the fairness of a Supreme Court justice to be off-limits," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the committee's ranking Democrat.
Privately, Democrats conceded gaps in their ability to mount a full-fledged opposition, starting with the fact that Republicans hold 55 of the chamber's 100 seats. A filibuster is the Democrats' only sure-fire way to block a nominee, but their ability to deploy the parliamentary tactic is hampered by a May agreement among 14 lawmakers who say filibusters must be reserved for "extraordinary circumstances." President Bush and his aides phoned or met with most Senate Democrats in recent weeks, which could undermine an argument used before by Democrats that he failed to consult with the minority party.
The combination of events left Republicans appearing jubilant and confident in the first hours after Roberts's nomination. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called Roberts "the kind of outstanding nominee that will make America proud."
Republicans noted that only two years ago, the Senate confirmed Roberts to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by voice vote. Democrats warned, however, that other appellate judges have been rejected when they aspired to the Supreme Court, and they cautioned Roberts against sidestepping their questions on his judicial thinking.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), an outspoken liberal and one of three Democrats who opposed Roberts in the 2003 committee hearing, told reporters: "You wouldn't say automatically he'll be a consensus nominee. You wouldn't say automatically he'll be a nominee that no Democrat will vote for. It's somewhere in that broad middle, and we're going to have to ask a whole lot of questions and do thorough exploration" before deciding whether to back him.
Schumer and Leahy pointedly noted that Democrats blocked Miguel Estrada's appellate court nomination in Bush's first term because Estrada refused to provide answers and documents that Democrats sought.
Roberts will spend much of today calling on senators from both parties. The Judiciary Committee, which has changed little since Roberts's 2003 hearing, will conduct hearings on the nomination just before or just after Labor Day. The Senate plans to vote in September on whether to confirm Roberts, the first high court nominee in 11 years.
Although top Democrats seemed tentative in assessing Roberts, Republicans praised him unabashedly. "I think Roberts is a fabulous nominee," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters within minutes of the news release more than an hour before Bush addressed the nation. Recalling Roberts's 2003 testimony before the panel, Sessions called him "the best witness I've seen testify at Judiciary." Sessions added, "He is a judge who will fairly construe the Constitution and be faithful to it."
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said on a conference call with reporters: "When you nominate someone of the caliber of Judge Roberts, you take away every credible argument the Democrats might have had" to oppose him.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a senior Judiciary Committee member, said Roberts is "a brilliant constitutional lawyer with unquestioned integrity. He's the kind of judge that all of us want -- someone committed to applying the law impartially rather than legislating from the bench."
Democrats, meanwhile, mixed faint praise with reserved judgments in commenting on Roberts. Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement: "The president has chosen someone with suitable legal credentials, but that is not the end of our inquiry. The Senate must review Judge Roberts's record to determine if he has a demonstrated commitment to the core American values of freedom, equality and fairness. . . . I will not pre-judge this nomination."
"What can I tell you, I don't know anything about him," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told reporters as he emerged from the Senate chamber two minutes after Roberts's name was released.
Democrats repeatedly said Roberts must provide full answers to their questions about his rulings, statements, writings and judicial views. "No nominee, especially a nominee who is well known to have argued ideological positions on issues important to the American people, should be confirmed without full and candid disclosure and discussion of those positions and their importance to him," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Kennedy, Schumer and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) were the three committee members who voted against Roberts when he was endorsed, 16 to 3, for the appellate court. The three remain on the committee.
Republicans have said they do not believe the nominee should be required to express personal opinions about legal or political issues, setting up perhaps the central tensions of the hearings.