WASHINGTON (AP) – The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Sunday he will not ask Supreme Court chief justice nominee John Roberts whether he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., did say he planned to ask Roberts, the president’s pick to succeed the late William H. Rehnquist as chief justice, whether there is a right to privacy in the Constitution.

Roberts’ confirmation hearing to be the nation’s 17th chief justice will begin this afternoon. The first day, however, is expected to be taken up by the opening statements of the committee’s 18 senators. Roberts is not expected to speak late that afternoon.

Specter said Sunday he was uncertain whether Roberts would favor overturning the Roe v. Wade decision from 1973 that established a right to abortion. Specter supports a woman’s right to choose to end her pregnancy.

“I think it is inappropriate to ask him head-on if he’s going to overturn Roe, but I believe that there are many issues close to the issue, like his respect for precedent,” Specter told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Specter said asking Roberts, now an appeals court judge, whether the high court correctly found a right to privacy in the Constitution when rationalizing its abortion decision would be fair, “and I intend to ask it.”

But Specter said Roberts is free to refuse to answer questions. “It has been my experience that the hearings are a subtle minuet with nominees answering as many questions as they think they have to in order to be confirmed,” the chairman said in his opening statement, released in advance.

What questions are proper to ask of Roberts will be a theme throughout many of the Republicans’ opening statements, a number of which were released in advance.

They want Democrats to stay away from hot-button questions, saying it would be unfair to ask him to prejudge cases that might come before him as a Supreme Court justice.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who will introduce Roberts along with Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and John Warner, R-Va., plans to say that politics has overtaken much of the Supreme Court confirmation process.

“It remains, in my view, a fundamental departure from the vision of the courts and their proper role,” Lugar plans to say.

But Democrats are pressing for Roberts to fully answer all of their questions. They are upset that the White House refused to release Roberts’ paperwork from his time as principal deputy solicitor general in the George H.W. Bush’s administration.

The White House did release more than 70,000 documents from Roberts’ time as an administration lawyer in the Reagan administration.

Without the solicitor general documents, Democrats say senators should question Roberts intensely since he will lead the Supreme Court for the rest of his life.

“This hearing is the only chance that ‘We the People’ have to hear from, consider and reflect on the suitability of the person nominated to be the final arbitrator of the meaning of their Constitution and the law,” Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the committee, plans to say in his opening statement, also released in advance.

Republican senators also plan to renew their complaints about judicial activism, saying judges are overstepping their constitutional bounds.

“Many fear that our court is making policy, when it repeatedly strikes down laws passed by Congress and the state legislatures,” Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, plans to say. “I, too, am concerned. Judges are not members of Congress. They are not state legislators. They are not governors and they are not presidents. Their job is not to pass laws, implement regulations, or make policy.”

On the Net:

Senate Judiciary Committee: http://judiciary.senate.gov

AP-ES-09-11-05 1857EDT

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