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Nominee Supported by a Majority in Poll
But 64 Percent Want Judge to State His Views on Key Issues Such as Abortion

By Richard Morin and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 23, 2005

A clear majority of Americans say John G. Roberts Jr. should be confirmed to serve on the Supreme Court but want him to state his views on abortion before the Senate votes on his nomination, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Nearly six in 10 Americans -- 59 percent -- said the Senate should confirm Roberts, while 23 percent said it should not. The remainder expressed no opinion.

But the public wants to know more about Roberts and his attitudes on key legal issues before he is confirmed. Nearly two in three -- 64 percent -- said he should publicly explain his views on abortion before the Senate acts.

Roberts, 50, continued meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee members yesterday, drawing qualified praise from a Democrat who voted against his 2003 confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) told reporters that Roberts told him he "hates bullies" who prey on the powerless. "I liked that answer," Durbin said.

Durbin said he voted against the appellate court nomination two years ago mainly because Roberts evaded several questions from the Judiciary Committee. He said he urged Roberts to be more forthcoming when he goes before the panel later this summer. "I want to go into this hearing with an open mind," Durbin said. "I want to give him the chance" to answer questions on numerous topics, he added.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who is not on the Judiciary Committee, called on the Bush administration yesterday to "release all documents related to [Roberts's] professional record, including memoranda written during his time in the Justice Department." Roberts was a deputy solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush.

But Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said, after a one-hour meeting with Roberts, that the nominee should not be pressed to answer some of questions on abortion that Democrats will ask because "he shouldn't be committing to case after case."

The Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests what the public would like to hear Roberts has to say about abortion: Sixty-five percent said they want Roberts to vote to uphold Roe v. Wade , the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. Support for that ruling is widely shared, the survey found, coming from eight in 10 Democrats, two-thirds of all independents and half of all Republicans.

Antiabortion groups were quick to embrace Roberts this week, even though he said at his 2003 hearing that he considered Roe "the settled law of the land."

Groups supporting abortion rights have reacted with alarm. Yesterday, NARAL Pro-Choice America said its "800,000 member activists, affiliates in 27 states and 30,000 'Rapid Responders' in all 50 states" are mobilizing to tell the public how Roberts's nomination might affect "personal freedom and reproductive rights."

Sixty-one percent of the poll's respondents want Roberts to answer questions about how he would have ruled on past cases before the court, an inquiry that could open the door for senators to explore his views on other contentious issues, such as affirmative action, gun control and same-sex marriage.

Since he was nominated Tuesday by President Bush, Roberts has been a bit of an enigma to conservatives and liberals because of his limited public record. He has yet to provoke an intensely partisan reaction among the public, and, taken as a whole, the survey suggests that the initial public reaction to his nomination is broadly favorable. Big majorities of Republicans and political independents support Roberts, while Democrats and liberals are divided.

In the poll, just as many Democrats said he should be confirmed (41 percent) as said he should not (40 percent). Large majorities of Republicans (84 percent) and independents (58 percent) said they want him confirmed.

Although little may be known about Roberts's specific views, conservative groups have embraced him as one of their own. But few Americans view Roberts as politically extreme. About one in four -- 26 percent -- said he is "too conservative," while 9 percent said he is not conservative enough. A clear majority -- 58 percent -- said he appeared "about right."

Just as many Democrats said Roberts is acceptable (41 percent) as said he is too conservative (42 percent). Barely half of all liberals (53 percent) said he is too far to the right politically. These percentages could change as more becomes known about him.

In question after question, Americans seem eager to avoid a partisan fight in the Senate. By 53 percent to 41 percent, the public said senators should vote to confirm Roberts if they believe he has the right background and qualifications to serve on the high court but disagree with his judicial philosophy and legal opinions. Even four in 10 Democrats -- 38 percent -- said disagreement with Roberts's views alone should not disqualify him, a view shared by seven in 10 Republicans and nearly six in 10 independents.

Although Democrats have questioned some of Roberts's legal opinions, his glittering résumé -- honors at Harvard Law School, a clerkship with then-Associate Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist, and a successful record as a private lawyer arguing cases before the Supreme Court -- has been praised by leaders of both parties.

Roberts was nominated to succeed Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the high court. But barely a third of the public expressed disappointment that Bush did not name a woman to replace her.

A total of 500 randomly selected adults were interviewed Thursday night for the survey. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company