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Roberts lays out philosophy of judicial restraint

When the high court nominee faces questioning today from senators, some will be eager to pin him down on issues.

Published September 13, 2005

WASHINGTON - John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush's nominee to be chief justice of the United States, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday that judges are like baseball umpires. They don't write the rules; they just make sure everyone follows them.

"But it is a limited role," Roberts said, his blue eyes twinkling in the bright lights. "Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire."

Roberts' humble comments on the first day of his confirmation hearings were an artful way to telegraph to senators that he believes in judicial restraint.

Republicans want reassurance he won't support rulings they consider too liberal, such as Roe vs. Wade , the landmark decision on abortion. Likewise, Democrats want him to say he won't strike down the "everything clause," the Constitution's commerce provision that has been used to justify everything from environmental regulations to civil rights laws.

In his first extended remarks since he was nominated for the nation's highest court, Roberts struck a careful middle ground, invoking Republican icon Ronald Reagan. He also said the rule of law "protects the rights and liberties of all Americans," a promise that might reassure wavering Democrats.

Speaking without notes for about six and a half minutes, Roberts vowed to approach cases with an open mind and said he understood the limited role of the judiciary.

"I will remember," he said, "that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat."

Roberts' remarks followed three hours of statements from senators. Most did not take a stand on the nomination, but their remarks previewed the posturing and skirmishing that will begin today, when Roberts will be questioned.

Republicans praised him (Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama called him "straight from Central Casting") and said he had the right to dodge questions about issues likely to come before the court. Several pointed out that Clinton appointee Ruth Bader Ginsburg had dodged many in her 1993 hearings.

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, told Roberts, "All of us are curious. But just because we're curious doesn't mean our curiosity should be satisfied. You have no obligation to tell us how you will rule on any issue that might come before you if you sit on the Supreme Court."

Democrats said they would not ask Roberts about future cases, but that he should still explain his legal philosophy.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the American people "need to know who you are and how you think." Democrats challenged the Republicans' claims about Ginsburg, saying she had been specific on many issues, including abortion and women's rights.

Most senators are waiting until the hearings conclude at the end of the week to decide how to vote on Roberts, but several Republicans offered hearty endorsements and a few Democrats signaled they were leaning against him.

"There are real and serious reasons to be deeply concerned about Judge Roberts' record," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "Many of his past statements and writings raise questions about his commitment to equal opportunity and the bipartisan remedies we have adopted in the past."

The senators gave a veritable history lesson, quoting Alexander Hamilton, Chief Justice John Marshall (at least three times), Thomas Paine and the philosopher Baron de Montesquieu.

President Bush originally nominated Roberts to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. But after the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist on Sept. 3, Bush decided instead to have Roberts replace Rehnquist. Bush is expected to nominate someone to replace O'Connor in the next few weeks.

Opening day of the hearings was not the hot ticket that Senate staffers expected. They printed 5,000 passes and had an elaborate system of barricades. But only 300 people showed up.

During the three hours of statements, Roberts sat patiently, paying careful attention to the senators and frequently nodding.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the committee, said he liked the eloquence of the nominee and was grateful he seemed to pay attention.

"I think he was impressive," Specter said, adding wryly that Roberts "nodded at all the right times."

--Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or

[Last modified September 13, 2005, 01:46:17]

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