WASHINGTON — U.S. senators began hearings on John Roberts's nomination to be chief justice with a partisan debate over how deeply they should delve into his views on such subjects as abortion, civil rights and congressional power.
Democrats considering the Supreme Court appointment said they will question Roberts, 50, on memos he wrote as a Reagan administration attorney advocating limits on civil rights lawsuits and questioning constitutional privacy rights. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware said that, if he had to consider only those memos, he would vote against Roberts.
"This is your chance, Mr. Roberts, to explain what you meant by what you have said and what you have written," Biden said in his 10-minute opening statement.
Roberts, nominated by President George W. Bush, would be the court's first new member in 11 years and the youngest chief justice in two centuries. He will give his opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington later today.
Republicans, pointing to past Supreme Court nomination hearings, said Roberts had the right to refuse to say how he might rule on issues likely to come before the Supreme Court.
"No matter how badly senators want to know things, judicial nominees are limited in what they may discuss," said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. "The Senate traditionally has respected the nominee's judgment about where to draw the line."
Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said lawmakers should avoid "a badgering of the nominee about how he'll rule on specific cases and possible issues that will or may come before the court."
Roberts arrived at the hearing room ahead of the scheduled starting time, smiling as he chatted with senators and introduced them to his wife, Jane Roberts, and two children. His parents, sisters and a number of other family members sat in the front rows as the hearing began.
He enters the hearing as an overwhelming favorite to win confirmation in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 55-45 advantage. The primary question is how much support he will garner from Democrats, who are split on his nomination.
Roberts would replace the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, for whom he served as a law clerk in 1980-81. Bush will make a second nomination to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
One Republican, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, signaled he will ask Roberts tough questions. He said he will ask the nominee about "inexplicable" high court rulings that have enhanced states' rights at the expense of the federal government.
Those rulings include a 1995 decision that said Congress lacked power under the Constitution's commerce clause to enact a law aimed at keeping guns away from schools, as well as a 2000 decision that shielded states from employee lawsuits under a federal age-bias law.
Those decisions amount to a "denigration by the court of congressional authority," Specter said.
Specter said he won't directly ask Roberts whether he would vote to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion-rights decision. Specter, who supports abortion rights, said he instead will ask whether Roberts recognizes the underlying constitutional right to privacy, the basis cited by the court for the 1973 ruling.
Democrats intend to focus much of their efforts on Roberts's civil rights record. Documents from Roberts's work as a lawyer in the Reagan Justice Department and White House show he frequently urged limits on lawsuits and remedies beyond those sought by others in the administration.
"Many of his past statements and writings raise questions about his commitment to equal opportunity," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the only woman on the 18-member committee, told Roberts she was concerned the Supreme Court would give states broader power to restrict abortion.
Women need to be able to control their reproductive systems, "rather than having some politicians do it for us," she said.
That comment later drew a rejoinder from South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who said that "there are plenty of women in South Carolina who have an opposite view on abortion."
Willingness to Answer
Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, went even further, calling Roe "perhaps the court's most notorious exercise of raw political power" and saying it was responsible for the deaths of 40 million aborted children.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said his vote would depend in part on Roberts's willingness to answer questions. Schumer said previous nominees had offered their views on past Supreme Court decisions.
"Judge Roberts, if you answer important questions forthrightly and convince me that you are a jurist in the broad mainstream, I'll be able to vote for you," Schumer said.
A number of Democrats acknowledged that Roberts, a federal appeals court judge who as an appellate lawyer argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court, was highly qualified.
Schumer called Roberts an "impressive, accomplished and brilliant lawyer" and a "decent and honorable man."
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said Roberts will see his writings "distorted or taken out of context" during the confirmation process.
Some people will make "the most dire warnings that civil liberties in America will be lost forever if you're confirmed," Sessions said.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma choked up as he called for "less divisiveness, less polarization, less finger- pointing, less bitterness, less mindless partisanship, which at times almost sounds hateful to the ears of Americans."