Senate To Start Roberts Hearings

Nominee John G. Roberts Jr., left, speaks with Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter. Originally named to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Roberts will undergo confirmation hearings to be chief justice.
Nominee John G. Roberts Jr., left, speaks with Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter. Originally named to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Roberts will undergo confirmation hearings to be chief justice. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Charles Babington and Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 12, 2005

The Senate convenes the first confirmation hearing for a chief justice nominee in nearly two decades today, starting a week of admonitions and questions for John G. Roberts Jr. certain to probe deeply into the conservative views of a man who could shape the court's direction for decades to come.

The Judiciary Committee's 10 Republicans and eight Democrats will focus on Roberts, 50, an appellate court judge and President Bush's choice to succeed the late William H. Rehnquist, starting at noon with opening statements in the historic Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building.

Analysts from both parties say the Judiciary Committee's toughest questions -- and Roberts's likeliest risk of a slip -- will center on a few issues that have dominated liberal-conservative judicial debates for years. Many will touch on the balance of power between Congress, the executive branch and the courts. Others will resonate more viscerally with ordinary people: abortion rights, voting rights and questions of balancing environmental protections against jobs and property development.

And in the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, concerns about the treatment of poor people and minorities could heavily influence the thrust of some of the questioning.

"Americans will have the opportunity for the first time to hear Judge Roberts's views on the major issues," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the committee's most senior member, said in an interview. Katrina's devastation underscores the hearing's importance, he said.

"What the American people have seen is this incredible disparity in which those people who had cars and money got out, and those people who were impoverished died," Kennedy said. The question for Roberts, he said, is whether he stands for "a fairer, more just nation" or will he use "narrow, stingy interpretations of the law to frustrate progress."

Roberts, largely unknown outside legal circles two months ago, was Bush's choice to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Before his confirmation hearings could start, however, Chief Justice Rehnquist died of cancer on Sept. 3. Bush quickly nominated Roberts to succeed his former boss and mentor, and urged the full Senate to vote on his confirmation by the month's end.

Roberts has been practicing for the hearings for weeks in front of panels of colleagues posing as committee members. But in many ways, friends say, he has been preparing for this week his entire life: dazzling his classmates at Harvard Law School, enthusiastically toiling as a government lawyer under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and serving since 2003 as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Many Senate Democrats privately predict he will win confirmation comfortably, barring an unforeseen bombshell.

But the ride won't be free. In his years as a young lawyer in the Justice Department, White House and solicitor general's office, Roberts advocated conservative judicial philosophies in hundreds of memos and letters. Many, but not all, of those memos have been released, providing insights into his thinking and beliefs.

The following is a summary of Roberts's views on some of the key issues likely to arise during hearings:

Civil Rights

In his memos from the 1980s, Roberts showed himself to be a strong proponent of the Reagan administration's view that earlier measures to redress historic discrimination were themselves discriminatory because they granted preferential treatment based on race and sex.

Roberts repeatedly argued against affirmative action programs. He fought to limit the scope of civil rights laws, opposing, for instance, an eventually successful congressional effort to make it easier to prove voting rights violations. He wrote of the "perceived problem of gender discrimination" and criticized state efforts to address it.

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