There are advantages to being Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, and Arlen Specter used them yesterday to sit down with the man nominated to be chief justice of the United States and to quiz him about abortion, consensus-building and other topics.
Specter (R-Pa.) invited John G. Roberts Jr. to his Senate office shortly after Roberts helped carry William H. Rehnquist's coffin into the Supreme Court, where the late chief justice lay in repose. In an interview, Specter said he asked Roberts, an appeals court judge, a range of questions, including, "How are you going to handle guys like Scalia? He's a lot older than you."
Justice Antonin Scalia, once considered a contender for chief justice, is 69. Roberts, 50, replied somewhat indirectly, according to Specter, by saying he considers it "a dialogue among equals" when lawyers argue cases before the Supreme Court.
"I'm intrigued by his concept of a dialogue among equals," Specter said, because it suggests Roberts will bring a needed tone of humility to court interactions. "I think for Judge Roberts to approach the court that way shows a lot of confidence," Specter said.
Specter said he also raised concerns about recent court rulings that he considers confusing and inexplicable. They include two 5 to 4 decisions regarding public displays of the Ten Commandments that in some ways seemed contradictory. Justice Stephen G. Breyer was the crucial swing vote in both cases, but "there's no explanation" of his reasoning, Specter said.
"I talked to him about consensus-building," the senator said. "He said that was something that he thought was important" and will be a priority if he is confirmed.
Specter said he also told Roberts that the 1973 landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade has been followed by 38 Supreme Court rulings meant to refine or clarify its guidelines, and he asked, "Is Roe a super-precedent?"
And the nominee's reply? "He didn't say," Specter said. Even a committee chairmanship, it seems, has its limits.