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Hatch easy on Roberts: Nominee describes philosophy

Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr., standing at left, introduces members of his family at his confirmation hearing.
Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr., standing at left, introduces members of his family at his confirmation hearing.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Compared to the intense, at times hostile tone of voice some Democrats used during Tuesday's first round of Supreme Court candidate hearings, Sen. Orrin Hatch and nominee John Roberts took a walk in the park.

How would Roberts describe his judicial philosophy?

"Like most people, I resist the labels," Roberts responded. "I prefer to be known as a modest judge, and to me that means an appreciation that the role of a judge is limited, that a judge is to decide the cases before them. They're not to legislate, not to execute the laws."

Questions from Hatch, the third senator to pose questions to Roberts and the 2nd-ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, moseyed along the philosophical, eliciting from Roberts comments about the need to be collegial with fellow justices, respectful of legal precedence and mindful of the separate roles of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

He asked Roberts — a former clerk for and now the likely replacement for the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist — about his interpretation of and intentions regarding the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling and the Casey decision that reaffirmed it. But Hatch clearly does not intend — as Democrats do — to push the nominee over and over to answer questions on such hot-button issues.

"Am I right that Chief Justice Rehnquist repeatedly believed that Roe should be overruled?" Hatch asked.

"That was his view, yes," Roberts said.

Much of the debate over Roberts' nomination is focused on "a woman's right to choose," which according to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is the one issue that America is "hanging on." Most members of the committee fired abortion questions at Roberts, who adamantly refused to indicate how he might vote should Roe v. Wade be revisited.

"I think that a general approach results in a modest approach to judging, which is good for the legal system as a whole," Roberts told Hatch. "I don't think the courts should have a dominant role in society, in stressing society's problems."

Roberts told Hatch that he tends not to have an overarching judicial philosophy, but that all good judges will focus on the facts before them and on precedence. And each case is different, he said.

"You have to begin looking at the cases and precedence, what the framers (of the Constitution) had in mind when they drafted that provision," he said.

Hatch, who has been on the committee for nine Supreme Court nominations, cautioned Roberts that he should only answer proper questions but not on his own views on particular issues.

"The question that needs to be answered is how you view the role of unelected judges in a representative democracy," Hatch said. "I want to know more about how you get or how you intend to get to a conclusion, while some appear to only want to know what the conclusion will be like on issues such as abortion."

"The people who framed our Constitution," Roberts responded, "were jealous of their freedom and liberty, and they would not have sat around and said, 'Let's take all the hard issues and give them over to the judges.' That would have been the furthest thing from their mind. Now judges have to decide hard questions — but they have to decide those questions according to the rule of law, not their own social preferences, not their policy views, not their personal preferences."

Roberts said his personal experience has been that careful judges are always vigilant in adhering to their proper function and not going into the legislative area.