WASHINGTON (AP) – John Roberts would replace the first woman on the Supreme Court at a time when interest groups are more focused than ever on the court’s position on abortion.

Only one female lawmaker will question Roberts publicly and then vote on whether his nomination should advance to the full Senate.

“It certainly gives me a big responsibility,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the lone woman on the 18-member Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee will hold hearings on President Bush’s pick to succeed the retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Feinstein, 72, a centrist, backed Roberts when Bush nominated him in early 2003 for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. But the senator also is a strong supporter of abortion rights.

“I recognize the fact that I’m the only woman. … I recognize that women have had to fight for everything they have gotten, every right,” she said in an Associated Press interview.

“So I must tell you I try to look out for women’s rights. I also try to solve problems as I perceive them, with legislation, and reaching out where I can, and working across the aisle,” she said.

Feinstein is a middle-of-the-road Democrat who sometimes breaks ranks with her party colleagues.

Two years ago, she was one of six committee Democrats who voted in favor of Roberts for the appeals court.

Feinstein supported Bush on the Iraq war, on his Medicare prescription drug bill and on the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Recently, she has worked with the Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., on a rewrite of the terrorism-fighting Patriot Act.

“She’s someone who pragmatically goes about the business of governing, and you can’t have extreme ideological commitments to do that,” said Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor at the University of Southern California.

Feinstein’s vote on Roberts may require her to weigh her passion for pragmatism against her strongly felt support for abortion rights. She served on a California prison sentencing board in the early 1960s, and she remembers the damage caused by illegal abortions.

The former San Francisco mayor said it would be “very difficult” for her to support Roberts if she determines he would vote to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

Feinstein also said that to a certain extent, she believes she knows where the nominee stands on that landmark case. She declined to give details, and after meeting with Roberts last week, she was full of compliments, describing him as modest, thoughtful and impressive.

Roberts’ position on abortion is not clear. As deputy solicitor general under the first President Bush, he helped write a legal brief that said Roe was wrongly decided and should be overturned. He told senators during his appeals court confirmation hearings that Roe was the law of the land and he would be guided by legal precedent.

Feinstein said she will use the Judiciary Committee hearings to try to clarify his stance.

“The District Court of Appeals, although it is the most important circuit court, it’s no Supreme Court,” she said. “It’s true you ask the question, ‘Will you follow precedent?’ and they say yes. And, it’s true that the Supreme Court can overturn precedent.

“New facts might end up with some tailoring of Roe at some point, but it would be very hard for me to see this country go back to where abortion, regardless of situation, was illegal,” she said.

Women’s rights groups and some of Feinstein’s female colleagues are counting on her to ask the questions they will not be able to.

“I feel very, very comfortable that if anyone can get at the views of this nominee on Roe, and on choice and on privacy, she can do it,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said last week.

Feinstein was one of four new female senators sent to the Senate in 1992’s “Year of the Woman,” which followed the Supreme Court hearings in which the all-male Judiciary Committee questioned Anita Hill about her sexual harassment allegations against nominee Clarence Thomas. Thomas ultimately was confirmed.

Feinstein has served on that committee ever since.

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