US Democrats get their last shot at chief justice nominee

Frustrated United States Democrats have their last chance on Thursday after two days of sparring to coax answers from chief justice nominee John Roberts on abortion, privacy and other controversial issues before he heads to likely Senate confirmation.

Six Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats—Roberts’ biggest critics so far—will try one last time on Thursday to elicit his views on a host of legal subjects before ending confirmation hearings on the man President George Bush wants to replace the late William Rehnquist.

Democrats expressed little hope of cracking what New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer called Roberts’ “cone of silence”.

“This process is getting a little more absurd the further we move,” Schumer said.

Roberts has successfully sidestepped and parried questions on how he would rule on controversial cases, and committee Republicans were so confident in the 50-year-old judge’s ability to emerge unscathed on Thursday that they have waived any time they could use to help him recover from potential slip-ups.

“I expect you will be confirmed,” said Senator John Cornyn, one of many Republican senators who already have Roberts sized-up for the black robes he would don on the Supreme Court.

“If people can’t vote for you, then I doubt that they can vote for any Republican nominee,” said Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. With all 10 Republicans likely to vote for him next Thursday, the only question left was how many, or if any, of the

committee Democrats would approve of his candidacy.

Democrats were upset that Roberts avoided many of their questions by saying he could not comment on issues that could come before the Supreme Court, justices he may work with in the future or cases that are before the US Appeals Court where he already presides.

He said it so many times during the hearings that senators started saying it for him. “As I’ve explained, that is an area—” Roberts began when California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein asked him about abortion.

“Apt to come before you.
Right,” she finished for him. “That message was well-conveyed.”

Across several hours in the witness chair on Wednesday, the former Reagan administration lawyer was modestly more forthcoming than he had been previously. He maintained that he had been more forthcoming than other nominees, albeit not enough for Democrats.

“Without any knowledge of your understanding of the law—because you will not share it with us—we are rolling the dice with you, judge,” Democratic Senator Joseph Biden told Roberts, who turned aside questions about abortion, the right to die, the permissibility of torture and other issues.

“Nominees answer about as many questions as they think they have to to be confirmed,” said Judiciary Committee chairperson Arlen Specter.

The full Senate plans to vote and likely confirm Roberts in time for him to take his seat before the high court opens a new term on October 3.

While making no commitment, he said that if four other justices wanted to grant a new hearing to a prisoner on death row, he would join them to make a majority for temporarily preventing the execution. “It obviously makes great sense. ... You don’t want to moot the case by not staying the sentence,” he said.

In response to a question, he said Congress had the right to try to circumvent a recent Supreme Court ruling that allows cities broad power to seize and demolish people’s homes for private development.

“This body and legislative bodies in the states are protectors of the people’s rights,” Roberts said. He said he had been surprised when he learned of the court’s ruling.

On abortion, Biden said Roberts had said just enough to assuage both sides a little.

Roberts on Tuesday called Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalised abortion in 1973, “settled law,” said there was a right to privacy and that cases that reaffirmed the right to abortion provided a “precedent of the court, entitled to respect.”

He did not say he would uphold the decision if it comes before the court, or that privacy rights were linked to abortion rights.

After finishing with Roberts, senators were to hold a closed-door meeting to review his FBI background check, and then hear from outside critics and supporters to try and get a better insight on him.

The American Bar Association also was to testify about the unanimous “well-qualified” rating it gave Roberts last month. - Sapa-AP

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