Roberts Hearings Begin On Hill

Hearings On John Roberts Chief Justice Nomination
Supreme Court nominee John Roberts said Monday that justices are servants of the law, playing a limited government role, as the Senate opened confirmation hearings on President Bush's choice to be the nation's 17th chief justice.

"A certain humility should characterize the judicial role," the 50-year-old Roberts told the Judiciary Committee in a brief statement. "Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around."

The appellate judge likened judges to baseball umpires, saying that "they make sure everybody plays by the rules, but it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire."

The drama of Roberts' swearing-in and his short statement capped a half day in which Democrats and Republicans sparred over the legitimacy of questioning him about divisive issues. Arguments about ideology and judicial activism also marked the hours devoted to opening statements from the 18-member panel.

Speaking without notes, Roberts addressed the committee for about five minutes — half the time each of 18 senators had been allotted for opening statements before he took the oath and made his remarks. He will answer questions from senators at much greater length on Tuesday.

"I come before the committee with no agenda. I have no platform," Roberts told the panel.

Before Roberts spoke, Senate Democrats and Republicans sparred over the appropriateness of questioning him about divisive issues.

Democrats said the 50-year-old Roberts could shape the Supreme Court for a generation if he confirmed to replace the late William H. Rehnquist and therefore all questions were fair game. Republicans advised Roberts to follow the example set by recent nominees to the high court and avoid responding to probing questions on controversial topics.

"Some have said that nominees who do not spill their guts about whatever a senator wants to know are hiding something from the American people," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "Some compare a nominee's refusal to violate his judicial oath or abandon judicial ethics to taking the Fifth Amendment. These might be catchy sound bites, but they are patently false."

"Don't take the bait," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in his prepared statement.

Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin dismissed the notion that Republican calls for a dignified confirmation process barred senators from pursuing a line of questions.

"If by dignified they mean that tough questions are out of bounds, I must strongly disagree," Feingold said.

Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee that conducted Monday's hearing, underscored the stakes for the Senate's vote on Roberts, an honors graduate from Harvard, a political appointee in two Republican administrations and a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia for two years.

Roberts originally was chosen to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. But Rehnquist's death prompted the president to renominate him for chief justice.

"Your prospective stewardship of the court, which could last until 2040 or longer ... would present a very unique opportunity for a new chief justice to rebuild the image of the court away from what many believe it has become as a super-legislature and bring consensus to the court," Specter said.

The journey began for Roberts in the ornate Russell Senate Caucus Room, where he quietly sat and watched as Specter gaveled the hearing to order. The day was devoted solely to opening statements — from the 17 men and one woman on the committee, the three senators chosen to introduce Roberts and from the nominee himself.

Roberts introduced members of his family: parents, siblings, his wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, and his young children, Jack and Josie.

"You see she has a very tight grasp," Roberts said of his wife, who held the two children. An ebullient Jack Roberts had nearly upstaged his father when the president announced his nomination on July 19.