'Judges Are Not Politicians,' Roberts Says

By Charles Babington and Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 13, 2005

John G. Roberts Jr. opened the first Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 11 years yesterday by portraying himself as a humble, non-political judge who would interpret the law "without fear or favor" if he became the 17th chief justice of the United States.

After listening to three hours of senators' opening statements, in which Democrats expressed fears that he would move the court to the right on abortion, civil rights and other issues, Roberts sought to dispel such speculation. Though he offered no specifics on his views, Roberts said justices must have "the humility to recognize that they operate within a system of precedent."

"I have no platform," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a brief speech without notes in the ornate Russell Caucus Room. "Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes." Rather, he said, "judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them."

Although the stewardship of the Supreme Court is at stake for potentially decades to come, yesterday's hearing seemed almost anticlimactic, with public attention riveted on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Democrats still pressing for 15-year-old documents that might give them better ammunition against Roberts. With few doubting that Roberts, 50, will ultimately win confirmation, senators of both parties used yesterday's forum to highlight their contrasting legal philosophies and views of the court's role in society.

Many Republicans used their allotted 10 minutes apiece to urge the nominee not to answer questions about legal issues that might come before the court. But Democrats said he must satisfy them that he will safeguard the rights of women, disabled people and minorities in the voting booth and workplace. Some also pressed him to recognize a constitutional right to privacy, which underpins the Supreme Court's legalization of abortion nationwide.

"This is a confirmation proceeding," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), "not a coronation. It is the Senate Judiciary Committee's job to ask tough questions."

President Bush's choice to succeed the late William H. Rehnquist will face hours of questions, starting today, from the panel's 10 Republicans and eight Democrats.

With some Republicans congratulating Roberts as though his confirmation is assured in the GOP-controlled Senate, Democrats warned that, if nothing else, he will have to earn their votes by fully explaining his criticisms of a variety of policies aimed at eliminating discrimination, including affirmative action and some aspects of the Voting Rights Act. Those criticisms were found in reams of memos that Roberts wrote as a young lawyer in the Reagan administration.

"I believe the federal government should stamp out discrimination wherever -- wherever -- it occurs," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) told him. "If I look only at what you've said and written . . . I would have to vote no. You dismissed the constitutional protection of privacy as, quote, 'a so-called right.' . . . You dismissed gender discrimination as . . . 'merely a perceived problem.' "

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the only woman on the committee, said, "It would be very difficult for me to vote to confirm someone to the Supreme Court whom I knew would overturn Roe v. Wade ." In the 1980s, Roberts wrote that the landmark abortion ruling was wrongly decided and should be overturned, but he since has suggested that the ruling is "settled law" that need not be revisited.

Despite the Democrats' warnings, Roberts's televised performance clearly pleased Republican senators and White House aides. His seven-minute speech "almost moved me to tears," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told reporters. White House adviser Ed Gillespie, who sat just behind Roberts, assured reporters "there were no notes or anything he spoke from."

Lawmakers' preoccupation with the hurricane catastrophe pervaded the hearing on filling the first chief justice vacancy in nearly two decades. At least two Democrats tried to weave the storm's devastation into their arguments, saying the disproportionate impact on poor people and ethnic minorities underscores the need for a judiciary sympathetic to the nation's most vulnerable.

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