President Bush said today his nomination of federal appeals court judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court is "off to a very good start," as Roberts embarked on a round of consultations with senators in advance of confirmation hearings.
After having coffee with his nominee in the White House this morning, Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden that he was "confident the senators will come to realize what I've come to realize: We're lucky to have a man of such wisdom and intellectual strength willing to serve our country."
With Roberts by his side, Bush also said he was sure that "the process will move forward in a dignified, civil way," and he urged the Senate to give the nominee a "fair" and "timely" hearing. He said he told Roberts over coffee "that we will provide all the support that's necessary for the senators to be able to make up their minds, that we will push the process forward, because he and I both agree it's important that he be sworn in prior to the court reconvening in October. . . ."
Roberts later went to Capitol Hill, where he was greeted on the steps of the U.S. Capitol by the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). He was expected to hold meeting this afternoon with leading Republicans and Democrats.
Roberts, 50, a conservative former Justice Department and White House official in past Republican administrations and currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, was introduced by Bush last night in a White House speech as his nominee to fill the first Supreme Court vacancy of his presidency. If confirmed by the Senate, Roberts would replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who announced July 1 that she is retiring.
Republican and Democratic senators said they expect the confirmation hearings to delve deeply into Roberts's views and record, with particular attention to the issue of abortion.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said this morning that his committee will hold "very, very detailed hearings" on the nomination. He told a news conference that senators would pore over Roberts's approximately 60 written opinions and explore his "jurisprudence" regarding Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion.
When Roberts was deputy solicitor general in the administration of George H.W. Bush in 1991, he co-wrote a brief that said Roe v. Wade was "wrongly decided and should be overruled." But in a Senate confirmation hearing in 2003 when he was up for a seat on the federal appeals court, he said he had been representing a client -- the first Bush administration -- in that brief. He told senators he viewed Roe v. Wade as "the settled law of the land" and said he held no personal views "that would prevent me from fully and faithfully applying that precedent."
A leading abortion rights group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, called Roberts "an unsuitable choice" and a "divisive nominee with a record of seeking to impose a political agenda on the courts." The group urged senators to oppose Roberts, saying that if he is confirmed, "there is little doubt that he will work to overturn Roe v. Wade."
Specter said he was "disturbed" by NARAL's rhetoric and that Roberts should be given "a chance to be heard." He also said senators need to tread carefully and avoid pressing Roberts to say how he would rule on specific cases.
If Roberts has called Roe v. Wade settled law, "I think that it would be relevant to confirm the fact that that has been said," Specter told the news conference. But if he is asked whether he is going to uphold that decision, "then I think that crosses the line" on asking how he would rule in a specific situation and would be "beyond the pale," Specter said.
The Judiciary Committee chairman said he wants to explore Roberts's views on legal precedents and on "respect for congressional enactments."
Specter said he was keeping "an open mind" on the nomination, adding: "I like everything that I've seen about Judge Roberts, but I think it is very important to have the hearings and to listen to him before a judgment is made." He said the hearings would be "fair and impartial," and that he personally does not go into them "with any preconceptions or with any judgments already formulated."
A leading Democrat on the committee, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, expressed concern on morning television news programs about Roberts's views on the rights of women, the disabled, workers and minorities, as well as environmental issues.
Kennedy, who voted against Roberts's confirmation in 2003, said on CNN that while the nominee is a man of "distinguished achievement and accomplishment," he also has "a pretty blank slate" on major social issues.
"The American people want to know whether they are going to have someone who is going to protect their rights and liberties," Kennedy said. "On civil rights, workers' rights, environmental rights, women's rights, we have made enormous progress over the period of these last 40 years. Are we going to have a judge that's going to sustain that progress or try to reverse it?"
Another Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, said on CBS's "Early Show" that he voted against Roberts in 2003 because "we couldn't get straight answers" from him on basic questions.
"If he wants to be on the Supreme Court, he has to be forthcoming, not to satisfy my curiosity, but to convince the American people that a man who could serve on the court for 20 to 30 years really is in the mainstream of American thinking," Durbin said. "I'll concede the fact that [Roberts] is an honest man with good legal credentials, who has a good temperament by all the accounts that I've read. But you really have to get down to the basics. Is he in the mainstream when it comes to American values on issues like civil rights, workers' rights, women's rights and protecting the environment?"
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leader of a bipartisan group of senators, dubbed the "Gang of 14," that averted a Senate breakdown over Bush's judicial nominees, said he regards Roberts as "an outstanding pick" who should not trigger a Democratic filibuster to block his appointment. The group reached a compromise in which Democrats allowed Senate votes on certain blocked nominees in return for retaining the option of the filibuster in "extraordinary circumstances."
McCain said on MSNBC's "Imus in the Morning" show that "it's hard for me to believe that [Roberts] would meet an extraordinary circumstances criteria." He said he expects certain Democrats to vote against him. "But to not allow an up-or-down vote, it seems to me, would . . . certainly not meet any criteria that I know of."