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Roberts Pledges to Approach Cases With “An Open Mind”

By Todd S. Purdum 
and Robin Toner


In an opening day of confirmation hearings in which senators drew sharp and partisan distinctions over his — and their — views on issues like abortion, civil rights, and the role of the courts, Judge John G. Roberts Jr. promised on Monday that if confirmed as the 17th chief justice of the United States he would “confront every case with an open mind.”

“I will be open to the considered views of my colleagues on the bench,” Roberts told the Senate Judiciary Committee and a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill. “And I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability. And I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat.”

The first afternoon of at least four days of projected hearings amounted to a kind of scripted political ritual, serial speeches by senators who praised Roberts or raised concerns about him, followed by his brief remarks, in which he responded just in the most general terms.

The session nevertheless starkly crystallized the debate over his nomination to fill the first Supreme Court vacancy in 11 years, and the first for chief justice in nearly 20, and how it is likely to play out in questions and answers beginning on Tuesday morning.

Again and again in the old Senate Caucus Room, the scene of contentious hearings since the days of Teapot Dome, Democrats on the panel leveled their gaze at Roberts at the witness table not 20 feet away.

They said they expected him to answer detailed questions about his writings as a young lawyer in the Reagan administration 20 years ago, questioned whether he subscribed to an expansive view of a Constitution able to embrace evolving notions of civil rights and social progress, and invoked the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to underscore their arguments about the gap between the American ideal and reality.

For their part, Republicans generally hailed Roberts as the kind of jurist who would exercise judicial restraint and leave law-making to Congress, though some said they wanted to explore his views about a series of recent Supreme Court rulings that curtailed congressional power. Many said he should not have to answer detailed questions about past, present, or future cases.

No one in either party promised to oppose or support Roberts outright, though some came close, including Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., who said that on the basis of Roberts’ written record alone, “I would have to vote no.”

Biden, who is considering a presidential bid, added, “This is your chance, judge, to explain what you meant by what you have said and what you have written.”

To potential friends and foes alike, Roberts gave the same respectful, silent, sympathetic, pursed-lip look. When he spoke at last, he offered homey testimonials to his deep respect for the rule of law, declaring: “I have no platform. Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes.”