WASHINGTON – John G. Roberts Jr. trod carefully through a second round of aggressive grilling Wednesday on topics from the right to die to property rights, as partisan division over the Supreme Court nominee seemed to deepen.

Republicans ratcheted up the pressure on Democrats to support Roberts, saying his nomination was a key test for the Senate. But Democrats expressed frustration with what they said were evasive and incomplete answers from Roberts and ramped up their questioning of the prospective chief justice.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., accused Roberts of “being less forthcoming with this committee than just about any other person who has come before us” and said there seemed to be a “cone of silence” over the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room.

In one of the lighter moments of the marathon day – but one that captured the essence of the back-and-forth – Schumer compared his efforts to elicit Roberts’ views on legal questions to asking what kind of movies Roberts liked. “I ask you if you like “Casablanca’ and you respond by saying lots of people like “Casablanca,”‘ Schumer said with evident exasperation.

Republicans said Roberts had been plenty forthcoming. The nominee himself said he was trying to “share as much as I can” without committing himself on legal questions that might come before the court. He said he’d taken a more “pragmatic” approach than other nominees who had refused to even discuss issues that were unlikely to ever come up again.

One of the most fiery showdowns of the day came in an exchange with Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., over the right to die, an issue recently put in the spotlight by the Terry Schiavo case.

Biden framed it in personal terms by referring to his own struggle when his father was ill. He asked Roberts if state legislatures or families had the right to make end-of-life decisions about whether to withdraw a feeding tube.

Roberts demurred, noting that such questions would likely reach the court.

“Just tell me as a father,” Biden implored.

Roberts said he wouldn’t consider such questions as a father or a husband but as a judge – looking to the law for his answer, not his personal beliefs.

“We are rolling the dice with you judge,” Biden said. “You’ve told me nothing.”

Roberts did cede ground on some subjects, for example telling Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that he didn’t see anything in the Voting Rights Act that was “constitutionally suspect.” He also told Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that if four justices wanted to grant a death row inmate a new hearing, it “makes great sense” for him to provide a fifth vote to stay an execution.

Several senators raised a controversial Supreme Court decision in which the majority said local governments had broad power to seize private property for private development. Roberts didn’t hint at his own views on the issue but said it was within the rights of Congress and states to revisit the topic.

Several senators also expressed deep concern about the high court’s frequent 5-4 decisions, which they said had created confusion and uncertainty, and even undermined confidence in the court.

“We have 5-4 decisions as the hallmark of the court,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the Judiciary Committee’s chairman. He noted that the justices often penned a dizzying number of separate concurring or dissenting opinions that muddied the legal waters.

Roberts said that as chief justice he would try to unify the court. “Individually the justices have no authority,” he said. “The Supreme Court speaks only as a court.”

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As Roberts answered – and eschewed – questions, Republicans seemed increasingly certain that he would be confirmed. They said he should win substantial Democratic votes, pointing to his unquestioned qualifications and his demonstrated legal acumen.

“This is a test of the Senate more than it is a test of John Roberts,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. If no Democrats on the committee support Roberts, “the standard for the confirmation is not legal qualifications but ideological alliance,” he said.

Democrats said they only wanted to determine whether Roberts would bring a political agenda to the court.

“We know you have a great legal mind,” Durbin told Roberts. What he was still trying to divine, Durbin added, was “what’s in your heart.”

Specter announced that Roberts would return Thursday for another brief set of questions and the committee would vote a week later. A full Senate vote could come by the end of the month.



(c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SCOTUS

CARICATURE (from KRT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): ROBERTS

AP-NY-09-14-05 2125EDT


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