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Keep hearings on Roberts open and informative


Published: Tue, September 13, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.


The next chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court will wield significant impact on America's justice system for years and likely decades to come.
That's why it is critical that confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate for John Roberts, President Bush's nominee to replace the late William Rehnquist and become the nation's 17th chief justice, be conducted with maximum openness.
One Senate Judiciary Committee member likened the hearings to a job interview for the American people. The analogy is apt for it is crucial Americans get as full, complete and clear airing of Roberts' general judicial views and his specific qualifications for chief justice as possible.
Roberts was nominated on July 19 to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. After Rehnquist died on Sept. 3, Bush decided that Roberts should lead the court, renominating him Sept. 5.
A shoo-in?
Some say Roberts is a shoo-in and that the confirmation hearings -- not even required for Supreme Court justice nominees until the 1940s -- are a mere formality. To be sure, Roberts' resume is impressive, and all indicators suggest he would more than competently fill the post.
He is an honors graduate from Harvard, a political appointee in two presidential administrations, and a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia for two years.
For more than two decades in Washington, he's established himself as a top-notch lawyer and widely respected judge. He argued 39 cases in front of the court as a private appellate attorney and a deputy solicitor general, having won 25 of those cases.
Value of hearings
Despite such a seemingly well-polished background, Roberts remains an unknown quantity to most Americans. The hearings can give the nation a clearer view of who would be administering the highest court of the land and in which directions he would be taking it.
Clearly, much is at stake. As chief justice, Roberts' responsibilities would be expansive. As the court's leader and spokesman, he would decide who writes the court's opinion if he is on the majority side of the decision. He would run the meetings in which the justices discuss and vote on cases, and he would preside over presidential impeachment in the Senate. Indeed, he would have more than 50 specified duties, most of which deal with ensuring the court's fair and proper administration.
We, therefore, ought to be watching closely as the hearings unfold to see how well Roberts' general judicial philosophies and his commitment to judicial impartiality come into focus. Americans also should be interested in hearing whether Roberts leans toward loose or tight interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, whether he views court justices primarily as interpreters of law rather than creators of law, and whether his strong religious background would wield any impact on his deliberations and decisions.
Roberts got off to an auspicious start Monday when he advocated a limited role for the high court. In his opening statement, he said, "A certain humility should characterize the judicial role. Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around."
As the hearings continue over the coming days and weeks, we look for more of the same candor from Roberts. We also look for thoughtful, well-reasoned questioning void of political grandstanding from senators. America deserves no less from those making the most important and most powerful judicial appointment in our federal government.


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