Efforts to get an answer out of John G. Roberts were going nowhere at yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, so Sen. Charles E. Schumer went Hollywood.
"Your failure to answer questions is confounding me," the New York Democrat fumed at the nominee for chief justice. "It's as if I asked you: 'What kind of movies do you like? Tell me two or three good movies.' And you say, 'I like movies with good acting.' Then I ask you if you like 'Casablanca,' and you respond by saying, 'Lots of people like "Casablanca." ' You tell me, 'It's widely settled that "Casablanca" is one of the great movies.' "
As the laughter at his expense subsided, the judge's smile shifted toward a smirk. Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) moved to call a recess, but Roberts asked if he could reply to Schumer.
" 'Dr. Zhivago' and 'North by Northwest,' " the nominee deadpanned. The crowd scored it another point for Roberts. Jane Roberts gave her husband a kiss. Schumer went outside to the cameras, where he observed, a bit wistfully, that Roberts "is a very, very smart man."
In yesterday's second day of questioning Roberts, the confirmation hearing had lost much of what little suspense it had in the first place. The only speculation in the halls outside the hearing was how many, if any, Democrats on the committee would vote for Roberts en route to his all-but-certain confirmation.
On Tuesday, Jane Roberts was so confident about her husband's fate that she was seen dozing on camera as her husband answered questions. By yesterday, there was not much left in the way of either questions or answers. Roberts avoided any query on a topic that might come before the high court -- which is to say most any question senators wished to ask. The result: Democrats and Republicans alike used the bulk of their time for speechmaking.
The conservatives blew kisses to Roberts.
"I've never seen anyone do a better job," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah). "You have made a very, very strong presentation here.
Lindsey Graham (S.C.) called Roberts "the most qualified justice in my lifetime" and added: "Obviously, he's read every case ever written and memorized it."
Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) dashed to the microphones during a break and shoved aside John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Felix Frankfurter. Roberts, Cornyn said, is probably "the most qualified nominee who has ever been put up for a Supreme Court vacancy."
Awash in flattery, Roberts grew more brash in declining to answer the Democrats' questions.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) observed that on Tuesday morning, "you were very full and forward-speaking. And then after lunch, it was as if you shut down and became very cautious. So my first question: Did anybody caution you between the morning and the afternoon sessions?"
"No, Senator," Roberts protested.
Feinstein knew she was just going through the motions. "I have another question I could ask, but you won't answer it," she said.
"Give it a try, Dianne," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) encouraged. "Go ahead."
Feinstein, tentative, asked about "the right of a woman to decide whether to continue her pregnancy."
"Well, Senator, as I've explained, that is an area that's -- " "Yes," Feinstein said, finishing his sentence, "apt to come before you."
With Republicans not inclined to grill Roberts and Democrats unable to pin him down, senators on both sides decided to do the talking themselves. In Hatch's 15 minutes of questioning, the senator spoke for 12 and left the nominee with three. When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) took his turn, he used 15 of the 20 minutes and gave Roberts five. Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) warned Roberts to give "short answers" and held the floor for 12 of his 20 minutes. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who spoke 3,500 words, left Roberts time for 1,500.
It was, as Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) put it, "a lot of senator talk." Explained Kyl: "I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is the only time that you'll have the opportunity to be directly lobbied in the political context in an appropriate way."
Brownback used his question time to digress into a discussion about an elevator operator in the Capitol who has Down syndrome. "He frequently gives me a hug in the elevator," Brownback said. "I know he hugs Senator Hatch often, too, who kindly gives him ties -- some of which I question the taste of, Orrin."
Hatch, wearing a loud blue-and-gold-striped tie, interjected: "It doesn't have to get personal."
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) used his time to deliver an antiabortion speech. After this long message, Coburn asked, "Would you agree that the opposite of being dead is being alive?" After another monologue on his abortion views, Coburn said he wasn't even intending to ask a question about it. "That was for your information," he said.
Then Coburn went moved on to assert that he used his "medical skills of observation of body language" to ascertain whether Roberts was telling the truth. "And I will tell you that I am very pleased, both in my observational capabilities as a physician to know that your answers have been honest and forthright as I watch the rest of your body respond to the stress that you're under."
The body language was quite different on the Democratic side, where Biden gave Roberts the full Al Gore: While Roberts spoke, Biden shook his head, put his face in his hand, pouted and glared disgustedly. "We are rolling the dice with you, Judge," Biden 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."
Biden kept talking. Graham rolled his eyes. Roberts explained that a fuller answer would be "inconsistent with the independence and integrity of the Supreme Court." The Kabuki continued.