Dems Tread Lightly On Roberts

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., welcomes Judge John G. Roberts, right, President Bush's choice to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, to the Capitol in Washington.
U.S. Appeals Court judge John G. Roberts clerked at the Supreme Court for William H. Rehnquist, the current chief justice, and has argued cases there many times.

Now he's asking the Senate to send him back for a new job, one that comes with a wardrobe — justice.

Low-key and deferential, Roberts paid courtesy calls on key senators Wednesday as the White House rolled out a methodical campaign to secure his confirmation and allow him to don the robes of a member of the court. Democrats posed their first probing questions.

"No one is entitled to a free pass to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, senior Democrat on the committee that will question the 50-year-old appeals court judge later this summer.

CBS News Correspondent Gloria Borger reports that the key to Roberts' confirmation could lie with moderate Democrats. At least one — Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. — says that they advised the president to nominate someone who is close to the mainstream.
"It appears at first look that Judge Roberts is that," said Lieberman.

CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen said that despite Roberts' conservative credentials, there is no way to guarantee that he will rule as a conservative from the bench.

"He's a candidate to be institutionalized at the U.S. Supreme Court… to be pulled along by the centrifugal force that moves people toward the middle," said Cohen. "There's precedent for that in the recent history of the court."

Cohen added that Roberts "is going to be questioned about his record in environmental and civil rights cases and about the clients he had while he was a million-dollar-a-year attorney in private practice just before he got his current job as a judge. He is going to be hammered about the controversial positions he took as part of the Solicitor General's office, too."

Abortion and access to internal government memos loomed as likely flash points as Democrats pointed toward the nationally televised proceedings.

But majority Republicans showed no doubt about the outcome. "We intend to have a respectful process here and confirm you before the first Monday in October," Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, second-ranking Republican, told Roberts.

Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pledged "full, fair and complete" hearings, most likely in early September, plenty of time to meet President Bush's goal of a final vote before the high court convenes for its new term.

"I think that they will be extensive hearings, because there will be many questions which will be raised," the Pennsylvania Republican said. "But based on Judge Roberts' qualifications, my instinct is that he'll have the answers."

Bush and conservatives who swiftly rallied around Roberts were counting on it — yet the administration took no chances as it sought to fill the seat currently held by Sandra Day O'Connor. She has frequently cast the deciding vote in recent years on 5-4 rulings relating to abortion rights, affirmative action, states rights and more.

O'Connor's retirement opened the first vacancy on the high court in 11 years, and gave the president a chance to place a more conservative stamp on the federal courts.

Roberts began his day at the White House, where he had breakfast with the president.

The next stop was the Capitol, where he made the rounds of leading Republican and Democratic senators. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., was at his elbow, placed there by White House aides determined to smooth the way to confirmation. At the same time, the administration and the Republican National Committee worked together to build support.

Progress For America, a conservative organization with ties to the administration, unveiled the opening salvo in an ad campaign designed to ensure confirmation. It stressed Roberts' resume of academic and professional accomplishments and public service — first in his class at Harvard law school, confirmed by the Senate to his current position, lawyer in two administrations.

The commercial marked the beginning of a confirmation battle of unrivaled cost but uncertain intensity.