Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter intends to permit senators wide latitude when they question John G. Roberts Jr. during this week’s confirmation hearings on his nomination as chief justice of the Supreme Court, leaving it to Roberts to decide whether and how to respond.
According to a copy of his opening remarks made available in advance to The Times and other newspapers, the Pennsylvania Republican indicates that he does not intend to interfere with what he described as “a subtle minuet” between nominees and the 18 senators who question them.
“There is no firmly established rule as to how much a nominee must say to be confirmed,” Specter says in the prepared text. “While I personally consider it inappropriate to ask a nominee how he would vote on a specific matter likely to come before the court, senators may ask whatever they choose and the nominee is similarly free to respond as he chooses.”
Roberts’ confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin Monday with the nominee and all 18 members of the Judiciary Committee delivering opening statements in the Senate’s ornate Caucus Room, site of the Watergate hearings and other historic investigations.
Questioning of the nominee will begin Tuesday and is expected to last two days. Outside witnesses testifying to Roberts’ character and qualifications are expected to appear Thursday.
The issue of which questions are appropriate to ask a nominee is a traditional tug of war between the Senate’s majority and minority parties.
The minority party, currently the Democrats, usually seeks to ask a nominee about his personal convictions to gauge whether he or she is a rigid ideologue or a person whose views can be influenced by facts and arguments. The majority party, currently the Republicans, usually declares such questions inappropriate in the hope that they can prevent the minority party from discovering just how ideological the nominee may be.
Specter is a centrist Republican who favors abortion rights and has set himself up as a neutral arbiter between the two parties. He has said he will not declare his position on Roberts’ nomination until after the hearings.
“Hearings for a Supreme Court nominee should not have a political tilt for either Republicans or Democrats,” Specter plans to say at the start of the hearings, according to the advance text. “They should, in substantive fact and in perception, be for all Americans.”
Specter notes that nominees regardless of party have adopted different approaches in responding to senators’ questions. For instance, former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist answered most of the questions he was asked during hearings but Associate Justice Antonin Scalia answered very few. Both were Republican nominees with strong conservative credentials.
“It has been my experience that the hearings are a subtle minuet, with nominees answering as many questions as they think they have to in order to be confirmed,” Specter says in the text.