WASHINGTON—Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. spent nearly four hours visiting Senate leaders Wednesday in a friendly atmosphere that many said could mean a relatively swift confirmation.
Democrats vowed to grill Roberts about his judicial philosophy during confirmation hearings in late August or early September before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But overall, Democrats held their fire, and some voiced support.
"I'm optimistic and hopeful that he is going to be able to build a broad consensus," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
Republicans, relying on Roberts' GOP pedigree, establishment credentials and accomplished legal career, welcomed the nomination and sighed in relief that President Bush did not send them a more controversial court candidate.
All in all, Roberts' first 24 hours as the candidate to replace retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor ended on an upbeat note.
But Democrats also set the stage for confrontation, saying they would insist that Roberts be more forthcoming in his answers than he was when the Senate confirmed him for a federal appellate court seat in 2003.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of three Judiciary Committee Democrats who voted against Roberts two years ago, said he would ask the White House to release documents from Roberts' days as a Justice Department and White House lawyer during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies.
"My wish is that he's very forthcoming in both the questions and the ability to supply documentation, so we can learn his views," Schumer said. "If he was a judge of 15 or 20 years—it'd be a little different. You'd have a long record. But we don't."
When he appeared before the committee two years ago, Roberts declined to answer a series of questions from Schumer about whether he agreed with past court decisions and where he would place current justices on an ideological spectrum.
In seeking access to documents, Democrats could be on a collision path with the White House, which has denied similar requests previously. Democrats did not seek such data when Roberts was nominated to the appeals court.
Still, a filibuster to block Roberts' confirmation seemed all but impossible after Sen. John McCain offered his unqualified endorsement.
McCain, an Arizona Republican, is a leader of a bipartisan group formed after Democrats filibustered a series of Bush's appellate court nominees. The group, known as the Gang of 14, agreed that no further judicial nominees would be filibustered except in "extraordinary circumstances."
"By no means, by any stretch of the imagination, would Justice Roberts—because of his credentials, because of his service, because of his extraordinary qualifications—meet the extraordinary circumstances criteria," McCain said.
Liberal groups stepped up their criticism of Roberts on Wednesday, focusing on a Justice Department legal brief that Roberts signed as deputy Solicitor General during the first Bush administration. The brief said that the landmark Roe v. Wade case that established a woman's right to an abortion "was wrongly decided and should be overruled."
Documents related to the preparation of that brief would be among the first records the Judiciary Committee Democrats are likely to seek.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a supporter of abortion rights, voiced dismay that groups such as the NARAL-Pro Choice America were already declaring Roberts unsuitable. He pointed out that Roberts in his 2003 confirmation hearing declared that Roe v. Wade was "settled law."
Still, Specter promised that the committee would examine Roberts' views on abortion thoroughly.
"We'll be going into that subject in some detail, again, now, not as how he will rule on a specific case, but his jurisprudence; what he thinks about precedence," he said.
Roberts' views on abortion also drew the attention of at least one anti-abortion member of the Judiciary Committee—Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. Brownback said he would once again want to know if Roberts believes Roe v. Wade is, indeed, settled law.
"It was appropriate at the time (of his first confirmation hearing), but I'm sure that issue will be vetted more clearly now that this is for a Supreme Court position where interpretations of the law—where there is more latitude on that," Brownback said. "At this point in time I'm not comfortable (with his answer)."
But other abortion opponents voiced no concerns that Roberts could emerge as a latter-day David Souter, the justice nominated by Bush's father who is now firmly in the court's liberal wing.
"I don't think there's any evidence that he'll be another Souter," said James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family. "Justice Souter was a black box. No one knew what was in it. We know a lot about Judge Roberts."
With the kind of reception usually afforded visiting heads of state, Roberts arrived at the Capitol's east front—the one that faces the Supreme Court—in a black Chrysler sedan accompanied by former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chosen by Bush to guide Roberts through the nomination process.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., greeted him on the Capitol steps. They shook hands for the cameras and then ascended the steps to the Capitol's second floor.
Roberts met with Frist, Specter and Senate Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Frist's office. Specter, who once described these sessions as "a good first date," then met privately with Roberts in his Capitol "hideaway" office.
Frist escorted Roberts through a phalanx of cameramen to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid's suite. Roberts then met with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
In all, Roberts spent more than four hours with the lawmakers. But neither Roberts nor the senators would say what they discussed.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Matt Stearns of The Kansas City Star contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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