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Senate Panel Approves Roberts; Full Senate to Vote Next Week

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg


A majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including three Democrats, on Thursday approved the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to become the nation’s 17th chief justice and sent it to the full Senate for a vote next week.

The 13-5 vote was a defeat for liberal advocacy groups, who waged an aggressive campaign to persuade Democrats to take a strong stand against confirmation. The groups had earlier predicted a party-line vote, but Roberts’ strong performance during his hearings last week left Democrats deeply divided.

The vote was a victory for conservatives who are eyeing a second Supreme Court vacancy created by the imminent retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a critical swing vote. With the nominee demonstrating he can command at least some Democratic support, conservatives said, President Bush will be emboldened to fill the second seat with someone who shares Roberts’ judicial philosophy.

“This may be, I hope, a turning point in our legal system,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, told his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee.

During a three-hour session, senators seemed fraught with the weight of their decision; several said that only a vote to go to war is more consequential. Others noted that, if he is confirmed, Roberts, 50, would shape American jurisprudence for decades to come.

With the committee vote behind them, some prominent Democrats began declaring their votes. Among them are two of the most closely watched senators, Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, both of whom said they would vote no. “My desire to maintain the already fragile Supreme Court majority for civil rights, voting rights and women’s rights,” Clinton said, “outweighs the respect I have for Judge Roberts’ intellect, character, and legal skills.”

The committee’s vote was not entirely a surprise; the senior Democrat on the panel, Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, had already said Wednesday that he would support confirmation. Even so, the Judiciary Committee chairman, Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pa., seemed a bit caught off guard.

“The ‘no’ votes were no surprise,” Specter said afterward. “I will not comment on the ‘yes’ votes.”