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With Roberts hearings complete, Democrats wrestle with their votes

WASHINGTON—His grilling over, Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. now waits for the Senate to render its verdict.

His performance during four days before the Senate Judiciary Committee wowed even many Democrats, who conceded they were torn between admiration for his intellect and his modest judicial demeanor versus his reluctance to reveal more about his views on legal issues.

In his final day of taking questions, Roberts tried to assure senators that he isn't an ideologue, describing himself instead as a strict follower of the "rule of law." He said his work as a lawyer had made him an advocate of the law no matter the cause.

He admitted, for instance, that while he helped a gay-rights group prepare for a Supreme Court case, he would just as easily have agreed to argue the opposing side.

"To some, they may say, well, that sounds like you're a hired gun," he said. "I think that's a disparaging way to capture what is, in fact, an ennobling truth about our legal system, that lawyers serve the rule of law above and beyond representing particular clients."

Republican strategists predicted a near straight party-line vote next week in the Republican-run committee, which includes some of the Senate's most liberal and most conservative members. But even there, some Democrats were struggling with their votes.

"I don't really know what I'm going to do," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "You've gone through this in a remarkable way. I'm convinced you will be there, God willing, for 40 years. And that even concerns me more, because it means that my vote means more."

The committee wrapped up its hearings by listening to advocates on both sides. Lining up against Roberts were civil rights leaders, women's groups and activists for people with disabilities. Supporters included academics and former government officials, such as Richard Thornburgh, the former Republican Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney general.

In the full Senate, signs emerged of bipartisan support for Roberts, especially from so-called "red-state Democrats."

"If you look at his performance, his education, his attainments, that is the kind of person who has the quality to be in the Supreme Court," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., whose state voted 63 percent for President Bush last year. Conrad faces re-election next year. "This man has a mind like a jewel."

Even Roberts' most ardent opponents, such as Nan Aron of the liberal Alliance for Justice, acknowledged that he didn't seem cast from the strict-constructionist mold of Justice Antonin Scalia.

There's little question that Roberts, boosted by an unflappable presentation before the committee, will be confirmed to replace the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The issue is whether the Senate will confirm Roberts by an overwhelming margin, as it did Scalia in 1986 and liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993, or whether the vote will split along party lines.

While Roberts would become chief justice whether the vote is 100-0 or 51-49, the margin could be an important benchmark when Bush nominates a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

All 55 Republicans are expected to support Roberts. Some Democrats say a close vote would signal Bush that a more conservative nominee would face a more difficult time. Others say a bipartisan vote would free Democrats from an obstructionist label and make it easier for them to stand against a more conservative replacement for O'Connor.

In the end each Democrat's vote could reflect his or her constituency. Red-state Democrats such as Conrad will feel pressure to approve Roberts. Blue-state Democrats will face pressure from activists to vote against any conservative.

Reflecting such sentiments, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean on Thursday urged Roberts' defeat. "The consistent mark of Roberts' career is a lack of commitment to making the Constitution's promise of equal protection a reality for all Americans, particularly the most vulnerable in our society," Dean said.

In 2003 the Judiciary Committee voted 14-3 to approve Roberts' appointment to an appellate court. Only Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., voted against him. The panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., voted present.

"What kind of justice will John Roberts be?" Schumer mused aloud. "Will you be a truly modest, temperate, careful judge? ... Will you be a very conservative judge who will impede congressional prerogatives but does not use the bench to remake society, like Justice Rehnquist? Or will you use your enormous talents to use the court to turn back a near-century of progress and create the majority that Justices Scalia and (Clarence) Thomas could not achieve?

"That's the question that we on the committee will have to grapple with this week."

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

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