Agendas? He Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Agendas

As his confirmation hearings to become the nation’s 17th chief justice began Monday, John Roberts carried himself with the assuredness of a nominee who is broadly expected to win approval by more than a bare majority of the Republican-led Senate, but he also sought to ease Democrats’ angst about his conservative political ties.

“I come before the committee with no agenda,” Roberts, 50, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about three and a half hours into the first day of testimony. “Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes.”

Roberts promised to “confront every case with an open mind” and a sense of humility for precedents shaped by justices before him.

The fireworks, if the Roberts’ confirmation proceedings are to yield any, would likely start Tuesday, when senators begin their question-and-answer sessions with the nominee. The hearings are scheduled to conclude Thursday evening.

Roberts’ remarks Monday lasted just under seven minutes, and followed the opening statements of all 18 senators on the committee. The 10 Republicans mostly advised Roberts to say as little as possible about his ideological views or his take on past court rulings, while the eight Democrats mostly warned they couldn’t vote for President Bush’s nominee unless they knew his views on matters such as abortion, affirmative action, religion, U.S. treatment of suspected terrorists and other issues.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., told Roberts, “If I look only at what you’ve said and written . . . I would have to vote ‘No.’ ”

The backdrop for this back and forth was an echoing chamber of marble walls and columns and red curtains in the Russell Senate Office Building known as the Senate Caucus Room, where hearings on some of the major events of the 20th century were held, including the sinking of the Titanic, Watergate and Iran-Contra.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said the chamber still reverberated with the contentious confirmation hearings that sank nominee Robert Bork in 1987 and from which Clarence Thomas emerged in 1991 as a justice, but bruised by allegations of sexual harassment by professor Anita Hill.

Specter said Roberts’ nomination comes “at a time of turbulent partisanship,” and he expressed hope that Roberts could “rebuild the image of the court away from what many believe it has become, as a super-legislature.”

Roberts had worked as a legal adviser during the Reagan administration and also as deputy solicitor general during George H.W. Bush’s administration, and in those capacities he wrote memos and argued cases articulating socially and fiscally conservative viewpoints that Democrats hope to use as ammunition against his confirmation. On Monday, a group of Democratic senators continued to press the White House for internal documents that have not been released.

Roberts told senators Monday that it was not so much during his government service as when he entered private practice _ and found himself arguing cases against the U.S. government _ that he came to fully appreciate the importance of the Supreme Court being independent from politics.

He also waxed nostalgically on his Midwestern youth, describing an enduring image in his mind of “the endless fields of Indiana stretching up to the horizon, punctuated only by an isolated silo or a barn.” To him, that image came to symbolize “the limitless possibilities of our great land.”

If confirmed, he said he would see to it that the high court “upholds the rule of law and safeguards those liberties that make this land one of endless possibilities for all Americans.”

Two Democratic veterans on the committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, invoked Hurricane Katrina’s impact on poor, black residents of New Orleans to suggest Roberts should have to answer questions on civil rights laws. Senators also suggested that the damage caused by the hurricane highlights the human impact of struggles between environmentalists and developers, or state vs. federal authorities, that might play out in the courts.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Roberts his views on the constitutionality of abortion rights could be decisive.

“It would be very difficult . . . for me to vote to confirm someone whom I knew would overturn Roe v Wade,” she said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., retorted that if Republicans had adopted that attitude during the 1993 confirmation hearings for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had earlier articulated her support for federal funding of abortions, “Justice Ginsburg would not be Justice Ginsburg.”

“Let’s get back to the good old days where we understood that what we were looking for was well-qualified people to sit on the highest court of the land, not political clones of our own philosophy,” he said.

Graham also said judicial nominees are a sitting president’s prerogative and argued Democrats should not try to invalidate that prerogative.

“He’s been elected president twice,” Graham said.

Roberts has not been on record about his own views on abortion, but he argued to limit abortion rights and funding on behalf of Republican administrations.

If confirmed, Roberts would be the first new justice in 11 years, the first new chief justice in 19 years and the second-youngest chief justice in history. Bush initially tapped Roberts to replace an associate justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, who this summer announced her plans to retire.

Roberts became the president’s choice for chief justice earlier this month, after Chief Justice William Rehnquist died. The president has not yet named a new nominee to replace O’Connor.