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Judges `don't make the rules,' Roberts says as hearings begin

WASHINGTON—The grilling of John G. Roberts Jr. begins for real on Tuesday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee will pepper him for nine hours of questions, half of which will be duels with the committee's eight skeptical Democrats.

In his long-awaited debut Monday as President Bush's nominee to be chief justice of the Supreme Court, Roberts portrayed himself as a humble model of judicial restraint, but offered little to whet the appetite of Democrats hungry to quiz him on civil rights, abortion and even the judicial consequences of Hurricane Katrina.

Roberts took no questions from the panel in Monday's initial round of his confirmation hearing, which was devoted to opening statements. In his brief remarks, Roberts compared judges to baseball umpires who "don't make the rules, they apply them." He promised to "confront every case with an open mind," and to remember that "it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat."

Even at his most direct, Roberts offered no details about his views on major legal issues. But he seemed keenly aware that many committee Democrats worry that his conservative background will translate into ideological activism.

"I come before the committee with no agenda," he said. "I have no platform. Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes.

"Judges have to have the humility to recognize that they operate within a system of precedent shaped by other judges equally striving to live up to the judicial oath," Roberts said. With that, he telegraphed his likely answer to questions he undoubtedly will receive on whether he'd vote to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed women access to abortions.

The opening day Monday was polite and devoid of harsh rhetoric. Few expect harsh contention even when the questioning begins. In fact, Roberts is widely expected to win Senate confirmation easily, barring the emergence of scandal, which seems unlikely given how thoroughly his background has been examined.

Roberts is a federal appellate court judge already confirmed once by the Senate for that post. His life history is a story of outstanding success that's won him praise from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Monday's session began with Roberts posing for pictures with his family and with Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and the panel's ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The tableau underscored the generational change that Roberts represents for the court, which has an average age of 70. He is 50 years old and was accompanied by his wife, Jane, and their two children—tow-headed Jack, 4, and Josephine, 5.

Courtesies aside, Democrats left no doubt where and how they intend to probe during the next two days of questions. In their opening statements, Leahy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., cited Hurricane Katrina and the devastation in the Gulf State region as evidence of continuing inequality in the United States.

"The tragedy of Katrina shows in the starkest terms why every American needs an effective national government that will step in to meet urgent needs that individual states and communities cannot meet on their own," Kennedy said.

That line of attack goes to the heart of Republican belief that the federal government should be restrained and that many functions are best left to states and localities.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the only woman on the committee, told Roberts that she'd press him on abortion and privacy rights, which are at the foundation of Roe v. Wade.

While Democrats focused on quizzing Roberts, Republicans counseled him to answer as little as possible.

"Just because we are curious does not mean that our curiosity should be satisfied," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. He argued that ethics rules prevent judicial nominees from discussing how they'd evaluate cases that may come before them. "Don't take the bait," he said.

Only Specter, a moderate who supports abortion rights, broke with the Republicans on that bit of advice, telling Roberts, "We all have a responsibility to ask probing questions to determine qualification beyond academic and professional standing."

He said he had "reserved my own judgment" on Roberts' confirmation until the hearings end, and noted that Roberts' vote could be critical to future court rulings on issues such as congressional power, presidential authority, civil rights and, of personal interest to Specter, televising court proceedings.

The committee is scheduled to vote on Roberts' confirmation next week, and the full Senate is expected to vote before the new Supreme Court term begins Oct. 3.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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