WASHINGTON -- Amid White House fears that Supreme Court nominee Stephen G. Breyer might get into trouble over judicial ethics, the judge himself insisted to senators yesterday that he did nothing wrong by ruling on cases potentially tied to one of his investments.
No difficulty arose on that issue in his first day of questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, after Judge Breyer and the White House went to unusual lengths to dispel any suggestion that he might have improperly decided legal issues that might have influenced his financial stake in the global insurance market known as Lloyd's of London.
Overall, the nominee was praised so highly by the committee and said so little that was controversial that the committee chairman, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, said the public hearings might end as early as this evening.
Even the one senator on the committee who had vowed to challenge Judge Breyer on the ethical point, Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, made only brief mention of it and asked no questions about it. The Ohio Democrat also made clear his support for the nominee.
It was clear as the hearings began, however, that White House managers of the nomination had grown worried about doubts raised in recent weeks over Judge Breyer's participation in eight appeals court decisions on insurance industry liability for environmental damage.
On the eve of the hearings, the White House issued a pile of documents in defense of the judge's participation. Then, during the hearings, three more documents were passed out to reporters, and those, too, insisted that the judge had not acted improperly.
Judge Breyer, after reading a prepared opening statement, paused and then volunteered a defense of his judicial integrity.
He said he had looked again at the eight rulings that have drawn the challenges and concluded: "I personally am confident that mysitting on those cases did not present any conflict of interest."
A committee member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House had decided it needed to pre-empt the issue with a strong defense before any senator went into it.
Judge Breyer said that he had told those who deal with his investments "to divest any holdings in insurance companies as soon as possible."
He also said that he had only a single investment remaining in Lloyd's, and that while he was technically locked into it for another year, he was seeking faster ways to be rid of that, too.
"I'll be out of that as soon as I possibly can be," he promised.
The ethical questions arose because at least two of the insurance decisions in which he took part on the federal appeals court in Boston involved heavy damage claims against insurers who had provided protection against environmental-hazard claims -- an area in which Lloyd's provides extensive coverage.
Judge Breyer and the White House insisted that he was unaware that Lloyd's was affected by those decisions.