Roberts Frustrates Committee Democrats

At the hearing, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) fenced with President Bush's nominee:
At the hearing, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) fenced with President Bush's nominee: "We are rolling the dice with you, Judge." (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Charles Babington and Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 15, 2005

Democratic senators angrily accused John G. Roberts Jr. yesterday of hiding his views on end-of-life questions, privacy and other contentious issues, but the nominee to be the nation's 17th chief justice refused to be drawn out, and his Republican supporters said his confirmation is virtually assured.

Democrats' frustration boiled over several times during the eight hours of questioning, as Roberts repeatedly declined to discuss his personal or judicial views on matters that he said could come before the court someday. Senators implored him to speak from the heart, but Roberts told them time and again that he would be guided by "the rule of law."

"We are rolling the dice with you, Judge," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said. "It's kind of interesting, this Kabuki dance we have in these hearings here, as if the public doesn't have a right to know what you think about fundamental issues facing them."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Roberts of treating the hearing room as a "cone of silence." "It seems strange, I think, to the American people that you can't talk about decided cases -- past cases, not future cases -- when you've been nominated to the most important job in the federal judiciary," the senator said.

Roberts asked for extra time to defend himself. "I think I have been more forthcoming than any of the other nominees," said Roberts, who had reviewed the confirmation hearing testimony of all the sitting Supreme Court justices in preparation for his hearing. "It is not a process under which senators get to say: 'I want you to rule this way, this way and this way. And if you tell me you'll rule this way, this way and this way, I'll vote for you.' Judges are not politicians. They cannot promise to do certain things in exchange for votes."

But Republican Arlen Specter (Pa.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also expressed irritation when Roberts refused to answer questions about several Supreme Court decisions striking down laws passed by Congress to help the disabled and victims of domestic violence. "Why not?" Specter asked sharply. "Judge Roberts, I'm not talking about an issue. I'm talking about the essence of jurisprudence."

But several Republicans defended Roberts's circumscribed answers for a second straight day and began congratulating him as though he were already on the court. As a sign of their confidence, Republican senators ended their questions late yesterday but agreed to let Democrats have another round today, and then conclude the day with testimony from outside witnesses. The committee plans to vote on the nomination Sept. 22. The full Senate will vote by the month's end, leaders said.

If Democrats will not support Roberts, said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), they will not endorse any GOP nominee. "They all admit that he is qualified," Hatch said in an interview. "So if they vote against him, it just means they are playing partisan politics and they'll look like hell."

Liberal activists privately said they would consider it a moral victory if all eight committee Democrats oppose Roberts, noting that the 10 Republicans are widely expected to back him. With Republicans holding 55 of the Senate's 100 seats -- and Democrats ruling out a filibuster -- his confirmation is highly likely, activists on both sides said.

In frequently emotional terms, Democrats pressed Roberts to discuss the government's proper role in determining when and how doctors and families can allow a terminally ill or severely incapacitated person to die. "Just talk to me as a father," Biden said. "Just tell me, just philosophically, what do you think?"

Roberts replied, "I'm not going to consider issues like that in the context as a father or a husband or anything else." He could not tell the panel how the law would guide him, he said, because "those are issues that come before the court."

Later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) tried again. "I'm trying to see your feelings as a man," she said, adding that she had to make wrenching end-of-life decisions about her father and her husband. Roberts told her, "it is difficult to put yourself in that position."


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