Supreme Court nominee David H. Souter will be grilled with "specific questions" about his views on abortion, civil rights and religion during his confirmation hearings, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said Tuesday.
"At this fateful moment in our history, we have a right to know--and a duty to discover--precisely what David Hackett Souter thinks about the great constitutional questions of our time," Biden said in a speech to the Senate.
Souter's record offers "more blank spaces than answers," yet his appointment could result in a profound change in the legal treatment of abortion and privacy, Biden said.
"In such cases, detailed and thorough questioning is the only way that the Senate's consent to a nomination can be deemed 'informed consent,' " he said.
Biden's speech, coming two days before Souter's confirmation hearings begin on Thursday, sought to justify going much further than before in interrogating high court nominees.
In 1987, during the battle over the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork, the Senate debated whether a nominee's philosophy, as opposed to his experience and intellect, was a valid basis for evaluating his suitability for a seat on the court. Democrats settled that debate by voting down Bork because of his conservative ideology.
Now, with the Souter nomination, the key issue is whether the Senate can force a nominee to reveal his philosophy in order to be confirmed.
"The burden of proof is on the nominee, as it is on us, when we seek election as senators," Biden said.
"A nominee (to the Supreme Court) must persuade the Senate that he or she is the person in whose hands we should agree to vest awesome power and responsibility," Biden said.
Meanwhile, the Planned Parenthood Federation released a poll of 1,000 voters suggesting that most Americans agree with Biden's approach.
By a 76%-20% margin, those surveyed said it would be "appropriate for the Senate to question a Supreme Court nominee on his personal views on privacy, separation of church and state, abortion and civil rights."
The National Organization for Women became the first group to officially oppose Souter. "Souter seeks the 'original intent' of the framers of the 18th Century, a time when all blacks were slaves and women were the property of husbands," NOW President Molly Yard said.