WASHINGTON – Declaring that he knows enough about John G. Roberts Jr. to find him “well-qualified” to be chief justice of the United States, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., announced his intention Monday to vote for Roberts’ confirmation when the panel meets Thursday.

Specter, in a half-hour speech on the Senate floor, said that although Roberts failed to answer some of his questions during last week’s hearings, “I believe he went somewhat beyond the usual practice of answering just as many questions as he had to in order to be confirmed.”

All 10 Republicans on the committee are expected to vote for Roberts, as are at least half the eight Democrats, according to committee staff members. A spokesman for Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., whose questioning of Roberts bordered on harsh, said the senator had not decided how he would vote.

Four Democratic votes for Roberts would be “a pleasant surprise,” Specter said in an interview after his speech. He said some Democrats might vote for Roberts “so they can be tougher on the next nominee.”

The full Senate is scheduled to vote next week, in time for Roberts to be on the bench when the court’s term begins Oct. 3.

Specter said in the interview that he expected President Bush to nominate a justice to replace the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor as soon as the Senate approves Roberts. Bush is scheduled to meet Wednesday morning with Specter, ranking committee Democrat Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to discuss candidates for O’Connor’s seat.

Roberts, 50, who would succeed the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, is in line to become the 17th chief and the youngest since John Marshall was appointed in 1801.

On the issue of abortion rights, Specter – a supporter said he was encouraged that Roberts respected the precedent settled in the “Roe V. Wade decision, which has been affirmed by other court decisions over the last 32 years.

“But the question remains how he will rule,” Specter said in his speech. “No one knows that for certain.”

Specter said, “The subtle minuet of the confirmation hearing for Judge Roberts turned bombastic and confrontational at times, but he kept his cool and responded within reasonable parameters.”

One area in which Roberts failed to satisfy Specter was in the Pennsylvania senator’s contention that a number of recent Supreme Court decisions impinged on congressional authority. Roberts was noncommittal on that subject.

Specter said he believed that Roberts would not bring an ideological bent to the court and that the judge rejected both liberal and conservative judicial activism.

Referring to the tens of thousands of pages of memos Roberts wrote in the 1980s as an assistant to the attorney general and as associate White House counsel, Specter said he was not “wholly persuaded” by the nominee’s attempts to distance himself from the opinions expressed in those documents.

But, the senator said, Roberts has “grown considerably” in the last 20 years and “is a very different man today.”

Finally, Specter said he had great hopes that Roberts would bring more consensus to the court and reduce the number of “confusing” 5-4 decisions.

Roberts told him privately that when he appeared before the high court as a lawyer, he regarded it as “a dialogue of equals.”

Specter said that in his own three appearances arguing cases before the court, he never felt that way, “but maybe when you’ve been there 39 times” – as Roberts had – “it seems that way.”

(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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