Roberts Avoids Specifics on Abortion Issue

John G. Roberts Jr. refused to divulge the way he would rule on matters such as voting rights and gender equity.
John G. Roberts Jr. refused to divulge the way he would rule on matters such as voting rights and gender equity. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Amy Goldstein and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

John G. Roberts Jr. testified yesterday that he believes that the Constitution protects the right to privacy, the legal underpinning of the nation's landmark abortion law, but he refused to say whether he would vote to uphold Roe v. Wade if he is confirmed as chief justice of the United States.

In a day of sometimes testy exchanges with senators, Roberts distanced himself repeatedly from his conservative writings as a young legal adviser to President Ronald Reagan, including a memo in which he had disparaged privacy as "amorphous" and a "so-called right" not spelled out in the Constitution.

Democrats pressed him aggressively, seeking to elicit his views on abortion and a range of other volatile civil rights issues by reminding him of stances he had advocated in the past. But time and again throughout the first full day of questioning at his Senate confirmation hearing, Roberts refused to divulge the way he would rule on matters of voting rights, gender equity, fair housing and the role of religion in public life.

He deflected some questions by asserting it would be improper to foreshadow his views on cases that might come before the Supreme Court. At other times, he shielded his personal views by saying his early writings simply mirrored the policies of two Republican presidents for whom he worked.

"Senator, I was a staff lawyer; I didn't have a position," Roberts said in a typical exchange, when asked about a memo from the early 1980s advocating a policy that would have allowed colleges to receive federal funds even if some of their programs discriminated against women.

The eight-hour hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee gave senators their first chance to publicly grill Roberts, 50, nominated by President Bush to succeed the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Republicans, who control the committee and the full Senate, praised Roberts and defended his refusal to answer questions because the issues they involve could someday come before the high court.

With the political fallout of Hurricane Katrina hovering over the proceedings, amid evidence that poor people and minorities have suffered the most in the disaster, Republicans also sought to portray Bush's nominee as a former lawyer who had at times displayed compassion for the dispossessed.

But Democrats suggested that Roberts might be a stealth nominee who would shift the court more sharply rightward than his careful testimony suggests. They repeatedly read to him his own words from government memos he had written in the 1980s -- excerpts from tens of thousands of documents released in recent weeks from his time as a federal lawyer -- and demanded to know whether they reflected his personal views, then and now.

"His answers are misleading," an exasperated Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) told committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

"They may be misleading," Specter shot back, "but they are his answers." When the laughter in the marble hearing room died down, Roberts said: "With respect, they are my answers. And, with respect, they're not misleading, they're accurate."

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) sought to persuade a reluctant Roberts to say that he would be the ideological heir to Rehnquist, for whom the nominee once worked as a law clerk. Finally, Roberts agreed that his nomination would not lead to "a dramatic departure" from the Rehnquist court.

Specter, who supports abortion rights, and several Democrats challenged Roberts especially hard on his views of Roe , the 1973 decision establishing that women have a constitutional right to privacy that includes the right to an abortion. Because Roe has stood for 32 years, much of the discussion centered on when and why a settled ruling should be overturned.


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