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Chief justice nominee John Roberts Jr. opened his Senate confirmation hearing testimony Monday with a brief but powerful pledge of judicial humility, fair-mindedness and respect for precedent. Likening the job of justice to that of baseball umpires, Roberts said, “They make sure everybody plays by the rules, but it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire.” Roberts, a veteran advocate before the Supreme Court, spoke without notes but chose every word with care. He addressed the Senate Judiciary Committee after three hours of members’ opening remarks. “I come before the committee with no agenda,” Roberts said. “I have no platform.” At another point, Roberts said, “Judges have to have the humility to recognize that they operate within a system of precedent, shaped by other judges equally striving to live up to the judicial oath.” Roberts, 50, was first nominated in July to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Court, but after the death on Sept. 3 of Chief Justice William Rehnquist — for whom Roberts once clerked — President George W. Bush selected him for the chief justice spot. The White House hasn’t made a choice for O’Connor’s seat yet. The hearing marked the first time in 11 years that a nominee for the nation’s highest court had come before the Senate committee, and members said it was the highlight of their year if not their careers. Roberts, accompanied by his wife, two children, and numerous family members, smiled easily and spoke briefly about his mentor Rehnquist. Roberts said he had spoken to some of the nurses who treated Rehnquist, and he was glad to hear that Rehnquist was “not a good patient. He chafed at the limitations they tried to impose.” Rehnquist died at 80 of thyroid cancer. “I will miss him,” Roberts said. If Monday was any indication of what is to come, Roberts will have a relatively easy path toward Senate confirmation. Senate Democrats, while warning they will have tough questions for him on Tuesday and Wednesday, praised Roberts’ intellect and outward qualifications for the job. Even Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, said after the hearing Monday that Roberts had given a “masterful performance — and short.” She also said, “He’s like an actor in a show, and he’s done a first-rate job.” On Tuesday and Wednesday, Roberts will field at least two round of questions from the 18 senators on the committee. On Thursday and possibly Friday, representatives of outside groups will speak for and against his nomination. Monday’s session began what committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., described as a “subtle minuet” between senators and the nominee. But the friction before Roberts spoke was largely between senators themselves as they clashed over what the nominee should address. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he would not vote for Roberts if he failed to answer questions forthrightly. “It is our obligation to ask — and your obligation to answer — questions about your judicial philosophy and legal ideology.” But Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said that answering questions even about issues — not simply cases — that might come before him would violate American Bar Association ethics guidelines. “I will defend your refusal to answer,” said Kyl. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also cautioned Roberts not to answer questions in order to simply please the senators asking them. “Do not take the bait,” Cornyn warned. Specter seemed to take a middle position, announcing he would not ask Roberts if he would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling declaring a woman’s right to abortion, but he would ask him whether women have a constitutional right of privacy — the right on which that ruling was based. After the hearing, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said, “I am particularly troubled that every one of our Republican colleagues was urging him not to be responsive.” From the opening comments of Democrats, it appeared that the privacy issue would be a major theme in coming days. Several cited a comment Roberts made in a memo from his days as a Reagan administration lawyer in which he referred to “the so-called right of privacy.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the only woman on the committee, said the right of privacy is “one of the most important issues to be addressed” at the hearing, and she indicated she would vote against Roberts if she came away believing that he would overturn Roe. The government’s response to Hurricane Katrina even made its way into the comments of several senators. Kennedy said that the hurricane had exposed not only the “gross disparities in society” but the need for “a strong national government.” Senators said the hearing represented a rare and historic opportunity to submit the Court to the influence of the democratically elected Senate. “The Constitution provides for one democratic moment before a lifetime of judicial independence,” said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del. “This is that moment.” Because it was such a rare chance to send a message to the Court, several senators from both parties indicated they would bring up the Court’s recent trend of overturning acts of Congress — nearly three dozen since Rehnquist became chief justice in 1986. As he has suggested repeatedly in recent weeks, Specter said he would press Roberts on the scope of congressional power. “These hearings present an opportunity to expose the extreme positions taken by the Supreme Court in denigrating the role of Congress,” Specter said. Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vt., the ranking Democrat on the committee, agreed. “Chief among emerging concerns are whether the Supreme Court will continue its recent efforts to restrict the authority of Congress to pass legislation to protect the people’s interests in the environment, safety, and civil rights,” Leahy said. “And whether the Supreme Court will effectively check the enhanced presidential power that has been amassed in the last few years.” In a rare unscripted moment, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion during his opening remarks. His voice choking and halting, he said, “My heart aches for less divisiveness, less polarization, less finger-pointing, less bitterness… . America is an idea; it’s not competing ideologies.”

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