US President Bush and Supreme Court nominee Roberts walk toward Oval Offie, White House
Kevin Lamarque  /  Reuters
President Bush and Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, left, walk toward the Oval Office after having breakfast together at the White House on Wednesday.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 7/20/2005 1:08:36 PM ET 2005-07-20T17:08:36

President Bush urged lawmakers Wednesday to give Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts “a timely hearing, a fair hearing” during a Senate confirmation battle that both sides expect to center on abortion.

“We will push the process forward,” Bush said, joined at the White House by Roberts on steps outside his office after the pair had breakfast. Both he and Roberts said they believe he should be sworn before the new court term begins in October.

After his meeting with Bush, Roberts headed to Capitol Hill for meetings with Senate leaders.

Abortion, a polarizing issue for lawmakers, will be the “hot button” issue in the confirmation battle, conceded Fred Thompson, the former senator who will shepherd Roberts through the Senate. But Thompson cautioned lawmakers not to read too much into Roberts’ seemingly conflicting legal positions on Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

“Many of the positions he’s taken are positions he took as an advocate ... representing a client,” said Thompson, whom Bush has asked to take charge of helping Roberts through the advice-and-consent process.

Democrats will demand “straight answers” from Roberts on the abortion issue, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will holding hearings on the nomination, said Wednesday.

“If he wants to be on the Supreme Court, he has to be more forthcoming .... to convince the American people that a man who could serve on the court for 20 to 30 years really is in the mainstream of American thinking,” he said.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada praised Roberts’s resume and qualifications.

And “by all accounts he is a very nice man. I look forward to meeting him,” Reid said. “But while these are important qualities, they do not automatically qualify John Roberts to serve on the highest court in the land. Nor does the fact that he was confirmed to serve on the court of appeals mean that he is entitled to be promoted.”

If confirmed, Roberts would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and thus become the first new Supreme Court member since 1994.

Specter foresees no filibuster
Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter praised Roberts on Wednesday as “an extraordinary lawyer and an extraordinary intellect and my instinct is that he’ll be able to handle the situation” presented by the confirmation hearings.

He indicated that the confirmation hearings would more likely be in September than in August and that Roberts would likely be allotted three days of hearings to answer questions from Judiciary Committee members, although more time would be allotted if necessary.

“I’m optimistic that there won’t be a filibuster” by those Democrats who oppose Roberts, Specter said. “In the era where circuit court nominees were being filibustered right and left, he wasn’t — so that’s a good sign.”

Roberts won confirmation as a federal appeals court judge by unanimous consent of the Senate in 2003. Unlike Miguel Estrada and other Bush judicial nominees, he wasn’t filibustered by Democratic senators in order to prevent a vote on his nomination.

Specter rebuked the abortion rights group, NARAL, for its immediate criticism of Roberts. 

He said he was “disappointed” that NARAL called Roberts “unsuitable” and “a divisive nominee with a record looking to disrupt the rule of law.”

The Pennsylvania Republican said it was appropriate for senators “to ask about jurisprudence,” but not appropriate to ask how a nominee would decide a specific case that might come before him in the future.

To ask whether he would uphold Roe v. Wade, Specter said, “crosses the line on asking a question as to he would make (a ruling) in a specific situation, which I think is beyond the pale.”

Rolling back civil rights?
In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D- Mass., suggested that Roberts might "roll back" civil rights and worker rights protections in federal law.

He assailed Roberts for filing a dissent in a 2003 case called Rancho Viejo v. Norton, which tested how far the Endangered Species Act can reach within states under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Roberts took a more restrictive view of the Commerce Clause than did most of the other appellate judges who heard the case.

Bush introduced the 50-year-old federal appeals court judge to the nation Tuesday night, calling him a man with “a good heart” and a jurist who will “strictly apply the Constitution in laws — not legislate from the bench.”

In brief remarks, Roberts said it “is both an honor and very humbling to be nominated to serve on the Supreme Court.” He said he has argued numerous cases before the high court during his career.

“I always got a lump in my throat whenever I walked up those marble steps to argue a case before the court, and I don’t think it was just from the nerves,” Roberts said.

No filibuster predictions
Reaction from Republican senators was overwhelmingly supportive.

Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee called for confirmation proceedings that “treat Judge Roberts with dignity and respect” and lead to a yes or no vote before the court’s term begins Oct 3.

Democrats reacted more cautiously, but there were no instant predictions of a filibuster.

“The president has chosen someone with suitable legal credentials, but that is not the end of our inquiry,” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the only woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will hold hearings on the nomination, said the new justice will be critical to the balance of the court, especially when it rules on cases involving congressional authority, a woman’s right to privacy and environmental protections.

“I will keep my powder dry until the due diligence is completed,” Feinstein said.

Bush calls for swift confirmation
Bush repeated an earlier request of the Senate Judiciary Committee that his nominee be confirmed in time for the new justice to join the court when it reconvenes in October.

“They share my goals of a dignified confirmation process,” Bush said of the Senate panel. “I have full confidence that the Senate will rise to the occasion and act promptly on his nomination,” Bush said.

Bush offered the position to Roberts in a telephone call at 12:35 p.m. ET Tuesday after a luncheon with the visiting prime minister of Australia, John Howard. He announced his selection at about 9 p.m. in a nationally broadcast speech to the nation, with Roberts by his side.

Roberts has been on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since June 2003 after being picked for that seat by Bush.

Advocacy groups on the right say that Roberts, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., who attended Harvard Law School, is a bright judge with strong conservative credentials he burnished in the administrations of former Presidents Bush and Reagan.

While he has been a federal judge for just a little more than two years, legal experts say that whatever experience he lacks on the bench is offset by his many years arguing cases before the Supreme Court.

Liberal groups, however, say Roberts has taken positions in cases involving free speech and religious liberty that endanger those rights. Abortion rights groups allege that Roberts is hostile to women’s reproductive freedom and cite a brief he co-wrote in 1990 that suggested the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade.

“The court’s conclusion in Roe that there is a fundamental right to an abortion ... finds no support in the text, structure or history of the Constitution,” the brief said.

In his defense, Roberts told senators during his 2003 confirmation hearing that he would be guided by legal precedent. “Roe v. Wade is the settled law of the land. ... There is nothing in my personal views that would prevent me from fully and faithfully applying that precedent.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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