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The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted 13-5 to confirm John Roberts Jr. as the 17th chief justice of the United States, with three of the panel’s eight Democrats voting to approve the 50-year-old appellate court judge. The outcome of the vote, a prelude to next week’s almost certain confirmation by the full Senate, was never in doubt. Less clear was the number of committee Democrats who would support the nominee.The panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), had already announced on Wednesday that he would vote for Roberts, surprising his colleagues as well as his congressional staff. Joining with Leahy on Thursday were both Wisconsin senators, Democrats Russ Feingold and Herbert Kohl. “At the end of the day, I had to ask myself, What kind of justice does this man aspire to be? An ideologue? A lawyer’s lawyer?” said Feingold, a liberal who has a history of bucking his party line. (He famously voted to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general in 2001.) “A chief justice who will go down in history as the leader of a sharp ideological turn to the right, or a consensus builder who is committed to the Court and its role as guarantor of basic freedoms?” Feingold said he was swayed to vote for Roberts, in part, because when Democrats retake control of the White House, he hopes a Republican-led Judiciary Committee will vote to confirm a comparable, though more liberal, nominee. “There may very well be a Democratic John Roberts nominated to the Court, a man or woman with outstanding qualifications, . . . on the progressive side of the ideological spectrum,” Feingold said. But Feingold, like almost every Democratic member, expressed dismay at Roberts’ refusal to disavow 20-year-old memos he wrote while an associate counsel in the Reagan White House and a top aide in the Reagan Justice Department. “Simply put, I didn’t find the argument that he was just an employee doing just what his bosses wanted credible,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who kept her decision to vote against Roberts a secret until the hearing began. The Democrats also criticized his failure to provide comprehensive answers to broad legal questions. “When John Roberts was nominated to the Supreme Court, I told him he had a clean slate with me,” said Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, who voted against Roberts in his 2003 nomination to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. “Unfortunately, after four days of testimony, the clean slate remained largely an empty slate,” he said. Thursday’s vote was a roughly three-hour affair, with each committee member allowed 10 minutes to speak. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a potential presidential candidate in 2008, was the only senator to bluntly raise the abortion issue, calling a young girl from Michigan with Down syndrome, Abby Loy, to his side. “We want to celebrate her, and yet in the womb 80 percent [of Down syndrome children] are killed,” he said, repeating a theme he raised during last week’s hearings. Still, it was clear that despite the hours of speeches to come next week on the Senate floor about Roberts’ credentials, attention has already shifted to the more immediate question of whom President George W. Bush will pick to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he believed Bush would announce his decision “very promptly” after next week’s full Senate vote. Specter said he would then set a hearing schedule based on the amount of background material available on the nominee. “We’ll take the time to do a thorough review of the record,” he said.
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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