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Senate expands focus of questions for Roberts as chief justice

WASHINGTON—As the body of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist lay in repose Tuesday, senators vowed to expand their examination of John G. Roberts' qualifications to replace him, focusing not only on Roberts' legal views but also on the leadership style he'd bring to the nation's highest tribunal.

President Bush, faced with a historic opportunity to fill two vacancies on the Supreme Court, said he'd take his time before naming a replacement for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who's retiring, and predicted that she'd still be on the bench when the court convenes in October.

Congress returned to work Tuesday facing a political and legislative landscape that had changed radically from the one that lawmakers left at the end of July. Senate leaders delayed starting Roberts' hearing until Monday, partly in deference to Rehnquist but also to keep focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Roberts, whom Bush initially had nominated to replace O'Connor, had been scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Democrats on the committee said Roberts' testimony about his legal thinking would be all the more important because the White House had refused to turn over records from his tenure as deputy solicitor general during the elder President Bush's administration.

"It's up to us to ask him about what he said or did at that time," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's ranking Democrat.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee's chairman, said that as a nominee for chief justice, Roberts would have to answer questions about how he'd lead the court that he wouldn't have faced before.

Specter said he'd like a new chief to bring greater clarity to the secretive court. He complained that the court has appeared contradictory on religious displays in public places and on the Americans with Disabilities Act in recent decisions. He said some court decisions were muddied by multiple opinions within the majority.

"The court handed down three decisions last June 27th `04 on detainees. And it's impossible to reconcile the numerous opinions there," he said. "And I think that Judge Roberts may have a real chance to bring the court together based on the personality which I have seen, if he is confirmed."

Specter, a longtime advocate of televising court proceedings, said he hoped Roberts would permit broadcasts of the court's public arguments. "He's a new generation," Specter said.

Suggesting that he'd delay nominating a replacement for O'Connor, Bush said he wanted the Senate to concentrate on Roberts. He said he talked to O'Connor on Monday from Air Force One to inform her that he was nominating Roberts for chief justice.

"Her first reaction was that she better get back to doing her homework, and she said so somewhat tongue in cheek, but she's right, she'll be there when the court is seated with a new chief justice," the president said. "And then we'll move deliberately to replace Justice O'Connor."

Bush, speaking after meeting with his Cabinet, said: "The list is wide open, which should create some good speculation here in Washington." He added mischievously: "Make sure you notice when I said that I looked right at Al Gonzales."

Gonzales, the attorney general, would be the first Hispanic-American to sit on the court if he were nominated and confirmed, but some conservative groups question his stance on abortion rights and liberals have criticized his position on torture of detainees from the war on terrorism.

Some Democrats, including Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, have called on Bush to name O'Connor's replacement before the Senate has an opportunity to vote on Roberts. Others have noted that O'Connor agreed to stay on the court until she was replaced, and have urged Bush to take his time and consult with senators.

"I will make up my mind how to vote for or against Judge Roberts based on Judge Roberts," Leahy said. "And then I'll take each one as they come along."

Specter said he'd prefer not to distract the committee by another nomination but that he expected Bush to act swiftly.

"We can pat our stomach and rub our head at the same time," he said.

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

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