Roberts takes first steps toward confirmation

WASHINGTON - Judge John G. Roberts Jr. will take the first formal step toward his expected confirmation as the next chief justice of the United States when he goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee at noon today.

The opening session of Roberts' hearing, the first for a Supreme Court nominee in 11 years, will feature the reading of prepared statements by the 50- year-old federal appellate judge and committee members.

Any real fireworks aren't expected to begin until tomorrow, when senators will have their first chance to question Roberts.

Last week, President Bush nominated Roberts to succeed the judge's former boss and mentor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Sept. 3 after more than a 10-month battle with thyroid cancer. Roberts had originally been chosen to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who will remain on the court until a successor is nominated and confirmed.

By all accounts, Roberts is expected to be confirmed relatively easily, although the rhetoric from Democrats at this week's committee sessions might be more heated now that he has been chosen to lead the court.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said yesterday that he thinks it is inappropriate to ask Roberts directly about his views on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that was a landmark for abortion rights. But Specter did say that he intends to ask the nominee about his views on the right to privacy - the linchpin of that case - and the Constitution, as well as his ideas about states' rights and precedent.

"I think that any senator has a right standing to ask whatever question he or she chooses. And then Judge Roberts has the standing to respond," Specter said on NBC's Meet the Press. "And my experience has been that nominees answer just about as many questions as they think they have to in order to be confirmed."

Today's hearing, in the historic Senate Caucus Room, is likely to feature more show than substance. At noon, Specter will open the proceedings with a brief statement, followed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee's ranking Democrat. The Judiciary Committee's 16 other members will have 10 minutes each to lay out some of the questions they would like Roberts to answer. Near the close of the session, Roberts will give a brief statement.

Tomorrow, the questioning begins, extending into Wednesday and perhaps Thursday. Once the public questioning is over, Roberts will meet with the committee members in a closed hearing to answer any questions they have about the FBI background check that is routinely performed for each judicial nominee.

Outside witnesses
After that, representatives of the American Bar Association - which gave Roberts its highest rating - will testify, followed by 30 outside witnesses, including supporters and critics of the nominee. The schedule set by the committee calls for all testimony to be completed by the end of Thursday.

Specter intends to hold a vote by Sept. 22, and Roberts is expected to win approval from the committee, which has a 10-8 Republican majority. Even in the highly unlikely event that the committee rejects Roberts, his nomination would still go to the full Senate, where Republicans have a 55-45 edge.

A final vote to confirm Roberts is expected during the final week of September, in time to allow him to take the chief's chair at the center of the bench when the court begins its new term Oct. 3.

Specter, a committee member since 1981 who became chairman this year, has said he recognizes the gravity of the proceedings.

"It's really, really important, for all the obvious reasons," he said. "If this fellow serves as long as [Justice John Paul] Stevens, who's 85, he'll still be on the court in 2040."

Roberts would be the youngest chief justice since John Marshall, who was 46 when he took the judicial oath in 1801 and served for 34 years at a time of much shorter life spans.

Bush announced his initial nomination of Roberts in July after a surprise retirement decision by O'Connor, who is leaving to care for her ailing husband.

Because O'Connor, a moderate conservative, has been the court's pivotal vote in recent years, an epic clash over her replacement had been expected.

Fiery debate fizzles
But while outside interest groups ratcheted up their rhetoric in anticipation of the hearing, that fiery debate never materialized.

"I think at the end of the day, the president is going to get two very good conservative nominees confirmed to the court," said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, a conservative group. "He's got a 55-to-45 [Senate] majority, and I like where things stand, but they're going to do what they're going to do, and I think we're going to answer proportionately."

One reason the debate has been muted is Roberts himself. A federal appeals court judge for only two years, he has left no real paper trail on many of the hot-button issues scrutinized by liberals and conservatives.

"Sure, if the nominee had been a judge who had been on a court of appeals for years and had a long record," said Nan Aron of the liberal Alliance for Justice, which is opposing Roberts. "It hasn't happened because his record is largely unknown."

After Bush nominated Roberts for the job of chief justice, several Senate Democrats said he should be held to a higher standard because of the influence that comes with that job.

But Carol Nackenoff, a political scientist at Swarthmore College who has studied the relationship between politics and the Supreme Court, sees little likelihood that liberals will be able to block Roberts.

"Unless they can get something fairly high-profile to emerge, then I think the space for these groups is going to be limited," Nackenoff said. "I don't think that they will persuade very many members of Congress, or have a whole lot of leverage on the public, unless the confirmation hearings turn up things that I'm not sure they're going to turn up."

The death of Rehnquist opened up a second vacancy on the court, and the next nominee's hearing could be more contentious.

The interest groups have "made their arguments on Roberts, but they haven't been able to get much traction," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. "I think there will be a bigger fight over our next nominee."