WASHINGTON - Judge John Roberts told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday that "I have no platform, I have no agenda" and, if confirmed as chief justice of the United States, "I would confront every case with an open mind."
Judge Roberts spoke after remarks by all 18 members of the committee, in which Democrats urged him to be candid about his constitutional views and Republicans advised him not to "take the bait" of commenting on matters that might someday come before him. Today the committee will begin questioning the judge.
Now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, he told the committee that "a certain humility should characterize the judicial role."
"Judges are like umpires,"
Judge Roberts said.
"Umpires don't make the rules, they apply them. The role of an umpire - and a judge - is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it's a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire."
Judge Roberts also said as chief justice he would follow the example of the late William H. Rehnquist and "be vigilant to protect the independence and integrity of the Supreme Court."
His statement was brief and mostly personal. He thanked President Bush for nominating him, saluted his family, and described how "the endless fields of Indiana," where he grew up, put him in mind of the "limitless possibilities of our great land."
He invoked two conservative icons: Ronald Reagan, in whose administration he worked as a young lawyer, and Justice Rehnquist, for whom he worked as a Supreme Court law clerk.
Mr. Reagan, he recalled, used to note that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the Soviet Union were empty promises because that society had no independent judiciary to uphold them.
"We do," Judge Roberts said.
In praising Justice Rehnquist, Judge Roberts recounted how the late chief justice's caregivers told him that the 80-year-old jurist "was not a good patient" because he was so focused on returning to the court.
"His dedication to duty was an inspiration to me," Judge Roberts said. "I'll miss him."
For most of yesterday's proceedings in the Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building, he listened attentively but with no emotion as members of the committee made their opening statements.
Other Republicans generally warned Judge Roberts not to make comments that could be construed as prejudging matters that would come before him.
"Don't take the bait, Judge Roberts," advised Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas).
"Do exactly the same thing every nominee - Republican and Democrat alike - has done. Decline to answer any question that you feel would compromise your ability to do your job," he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) urged Democrats not to condition their support for Judge Roberts on an undertaking by the nominee that he would uphold the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
"If we were to vote on just that one idea, we wouldn't have a Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg," Mr. Graham said, referring to one of former President Bill Clinton's Supreme Court appointees who supports abortion rights.
But Democrats warned Judge Roberts that he would have to be forthcoming about his constitutional views.
Calling the hearings "John Roberts' job interview with the American people," Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) said senators "need to know his views on civil rights, voting rights, and the right to privacy - especially the removal of existing barriers to full and fair lives for women, minorities, and the disabled."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) told Judge Roberts: "If you want my vote, you need to meet two criteria. First, you need to answer questions fully so we can ascertain your judicial philosophy. And second, once we have ascertained your philosophy, it must be clear that it is the broad mainstream."
Sen. Joseph Biden (D., Del.) told the judge that "there is a genuine intellectual struggle going on in our country over whether our Constitution will continue to protect our privacy and continue to empower the federal government to protect the powerless. .●.●. Quite frankly, we need to know on which side you stand."
Even two centrist Democrats considered possible votes for the judge asked him to speak freely about his views.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), the only woman on the panel, warned that "it would be very difficult for me to vote to confirm someone to the Supreme Court whom I knew would overturn Roe vs. Wade."
And Sen. Herb Kohl (D., Wis.) told Judge Roberts: "We need and we deserve to know what is in your mind and in your heart."
Mr. Graham was one of the "Gang of 14" senators who forged a compromise earlier this year to avoid the "nuclear option" of abolishing the filibuster for judicial nominations. He warned Democrats that it would violate the spirit of that agreement to oppose Judge Roberts simply because he was the sort of "strict constructionist" justice the President promised to appoint during the 2004 campaign. "Elections matter," he said.
One Republican who did express an interest in probing the judge's views was the committee chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), who reminded the judge of his plan to question him about a series of Supreme Court decisions limiting Congress' power to legislate under the Constitution's Commerce Clause.
Mr. Specter, an abortion-rights supporter, also said Judge Roberts should expect questions about his reference to a "so-called right to privacy" in memos written when he was a lawyer in the Reagan administration.
But he acknowledged that confirmation hearings for judges are a "subtle minuet with nominees answering as many questions as they think they have to in order to be confirmed."
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