Federal Judge John G. Roberts Jr. yesterday left little doubt why President Bush nominated him to be the next chief justice of the Supreme Court.
"I have no platform," he promised at the close of the first day of his confirmation hearing, as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee listened intently. "I have no agenda, but I do have a commitment. If I am confirmed, I will confront every case with an open mind."
Judge Roberts' 6 ½-minute speech -- delivered without notes -- came at the end of a marathon of much longer speeches carefully read by committee members.
One conservative observer later remarked that Judge Roberts "stole the show." Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who hasn't said how he'll vote on the nomination, said Judge Roberts even "nodded at all the right times" during the senators' speeches.
The first Supreme Court confirmation hearing in more than 10 years -- and the first for a chief justice since 1986 -- began shortly before noon, when Mr. Specter and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, ushered Judge Roberts through the giant mahogany doors of the Senate Caucus Room.
Mr. Leahy noted that Judge Roberts is "the first nominee of the 21st century" and emphasized that justices are appointed for life.
"The light of the nominations process is intense because it is the only time that light will shine, and the afterglow lasts for the rest of a justice's career," Mr. Leahy said.
Democrats promised to grill Judge Roberts about his positions on such issues as abortion and congressional authority.
"We have an obligation to find out where you will take us before we decide whether we want you to lead us there," said Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat. "And, most importantly, you have an obligation to tell us."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, reiterated her position that she could not vote for Judge Roberts if she thinks he will overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court case that declared abortion a constitutional right.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, who has met privately with Judge Roberts three times, said he and others still know very little about the veteran Washington lawyer.
"We have seen maybe 10 percent of you -- just the visible tip of the iceberg, not the 90 percent that is still submerged," Mr. Schumer said. "And we all know that it is the ice beneath the surface that can sink the ship."
Republicans warned their colleagues against judging Judge Roberts based on political views.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, warned Judge Roberts not to "take the bait" by answering questions that might touch on his views of political matters or might hem him into ruling a certain way on a particular case if he's confirmed.
A pro-choice Republican, Mr. Specter told Judge Roberts: "I do not intend to ask whether you will overturn Roe v. Wade. I will ask you if the Constitution has a right of privacy, and I will ask questions about precedents as they bear on Roe v. Wade."
Mr. Specter, a veteran of nine Supreme Court confirmation hearings, said nominees typically "answer about as many questions as they think they have to in order to be confirmed."
After the committee members had their say, Judge Roberts was officially introduced by the senators from his native Indiana, Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar and Democrat Evan Bayh.
Judge Roberts stood before the committee, raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth. He then sat down and delivered the briefest remarks of the day.
"Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around," he told the lawmakers. "Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them."
He recalled arguing cases against the government before the Supreme Court.
"Here was the United States, the most powerful entity in the world, aligned against my client," Judge Roberts said. "And, yet, all I had to do was convince the court that I was right on the law and the government was wrong and all that power and might would recede in deference to the rule of law. That is a remarkable thing."
He waxed nostalgic about the "endless fields of Indiana" of his youth.
"As I grew older, those endless fields came to represent for me the limitless possibilities of our great land. Growing up, I never imagined that I would be here, in this historic room, nominated to be the chief justice," Judge Roberts said.
"If I am confirmed," he concluded, "I will be vigilant to protect the independence and integrity of the Supreme Court, and I will work to ensure that it upholds the rule of law and safeguards those liberties that make this land one of endless possibilities for all Americans."
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