WASHINGTON (AP) – Supreme Court nominee John Roberts jousted with Democratic senators yesterday at his confirmation hearing to be chief justice, dodging their attempts to pin down his opinions on abortion, voting rights and other legal issues.

Jess Cox
Chief Justice nominee John Roberts gestures while testifying on Capitol Hill yesterday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Roberts said he felt the landmark 1973 ruling legalizing abortion was “settled as a precedent” and that the Constitution provides a right to privacy. Questioned by the lone woman on the panel, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Roberts referred to the “settled expectations” of society three decades after the abortion decision.

But when senators pressed for details on his opinions – even to the point of interrupting his answers – Roberts said repeatedly that he shouldn’t address some issues that could come before the Supreme Court with him as chief justice.

At one point, Sen. Joe Biden, (D-Del.), who has indicated he may run for president in 2008, accused Roberts of “filibustering.”

“Go ahead and continue not to answer,” said Biden. Later, he interrupted Roberts and when criticized, insisted, “His answers are misleading, with all due respect.”

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute! They may be misleading but they are his answers,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, (R-Pa.), the Judiciary Committee chairman.

Roberts – who had noted that Biden earlier would have heard an entire answer if he hadn’t interrupted – kept his cool.

“With respect, they are my answers and with respect, they are not misleading,” he said.

Senators questioned President Bush’s choice to succeed the late William Rehnquist on abortion, privacy, voting rights and the balance of power between the branches of government. Roberts frequently answered through the prism of legal precedent but declined to address specifics.

The heart of the abortion ruling is “settled as a precedent of the court, entitled to respect under principles of stare decisis,” the concept that long-established rulings should be given extra weight, Roberts said.

Still, review and revisions have been the hallmark of the high court on issues from integration to gay rights, and Roberts indicated that groundbreaking cases can draw a second look.

“If particular precedents have proven to be unworkable, they don’t lead to predictable results, they’re difficult to apply, that’s one factor supporting reconsideration,” Roberts said.

If confirmed, the 50-year-old Roberts would be the youngest chief justice in 200 years, with the power to shape the high court for decades.

Democrats and Republicans see no major obstacles to his winning Senate approval and joining the other justices when the new term begins Oct. 3.

In his answers on abortion, Roberts focused on a 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, referring to that as a precedent-setting case in addition to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

In the Pennsylvania case, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the core holdings of Roe v. Wade and ban states from outlawing most abortions. The court said states could impose restrictions on the procedure that do not impose an “undue burden” on women.

“It reaffirmed the central holding in Roe v. Wade,” Roberts said.

Bush originally nominated Roberts to succeed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the court’s crucial swing vote who announced her plans to retire in July. Within days of Rehnquist’s death on Sept. 3, Bush tapped Roberts to be chief justice.


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