Kudos, so far, for helmsman of Roberts hearings

Hope runs high that, under Sen. Arlen Specter, next week's proceedings on high court nominee will be fair.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee convenes its first hearing in 11 years for a US Supreme Court nominee, the senator presiding over the mega-event takes on the assignment of a lifetime - and colleagues on both sides of the aisle say he appears to have the fortitude and experience to manage it.

After all, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter has prevailed over skeptics in his own party to ascend to the head of this high-profile committee, not to mention surviving a tough reelection and not one, not two, but three diagnoses of a terminal illness.

The former Pennsylvania prosecutor, who has participated in the confirmation hearings of all but one sitting Supreme Court justice, is ready for "opening day" next Tuesday, his aides say.

"The No. 1 thing to understand is that no one gets a free pass with Arlen Specter," says spokesman Bill Reynolds. "He takes his role as chairman, as a neutral arbitrator, very seriously."

Early on, Senator Specter signalled nominee John Roberts, now serving on the Fourth Circuit US Court of Appeals in Washington, to expect hearings that are fair, thorough, and wide-ranging. The senator, however, has not backed calls from Democrats and outside groups for the release of Judge Roberts's memos from his days as deputy US solicitor general from 1989 to 1993.

Famously independent, Specter has alienated both ends of the political spectrum during previous Supreme Court nomination fights. His 1987 vote against Robert Bork, a President Reagan nominee, outraged conservatives. Later, his grilling of Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas hearings angered so many women and independent voters that it nearly cost him reelection in 1992.

In the run-up to Tuesday's hearing on Roberts's nomination, the senator is being commended by both sides - and by many outside groups - for his commitment to a fair, deliberative process.

"Specter wants to hold hearings that will withstand the test of time, not [be] someone who wants to carry an ideological point to an extreme," says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. "He will be very receptive to deep, probing questions from Democratic colleagues. The hearings might get testy, but it would have been a bloodletting with a different chair."

When Republicans needed to replace the last chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee after the 2004 election, "neutral" wasn't in the job description. Ever since the bitter Bork fight, the Judiciary panel has been ground zero for partisan gridlock in the Senate.

Although long-time GOP senators favored him for the chairmanship, Specter had to lobby hard to get it. Conservatives wanted a tough party loyalist who would fight for President Bush's nominees, and Specter's party unity scores on key votes often dropped below 50 percent, according to Congressional Quarterly rankings. He has clashed with the Bush White House over tax cuts, the Patriot Act, education funding, and, most recently, limits on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

Specter is also the only Republican on the panel who supports abortion rights. When he said last fall he did not believe that an antiabortion nominee could be confirmed to the high court, it nearly derailed his shot at the chairmanship. He said his remarks had been misunderstood. "I merely noted the political facts of life. Pro-life nominees might be filibustered by the Democrats," he wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

Afterward, in a dramatic news conference with GOP colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, Specter pledged to "not use a litmus test to deny confirmation to pro-life nominees" and to ensure quick hearings and early votes. When the 109th Congress convened, the gavel was his.

Despite health problems, Specter has kept up a fast pace on the committee, on which he has served since 1981. Since 2001, the panel has confirmed 214 of Mr. Bush's judicial nominees, but the intensity of those hearings pales before the spectacle of a high court confirmation.

In the runup to next week's hearings, Specter has released two letters he wrote to Roberts on issues ranging from the "judicial activism of the Rehnquist Court" (which has overturned provisions in laws such as the 1994 Violence Against Women Act) to high court decisions on the Americans with Disabilities Act. If confirmed, Roberts would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was the deciding vote in the 2000 federalism case, United States v. Morrison, and other cases that, to Specter, are "denigrating" and "disrespectful" to Congress.

"To this senator," he wrote to Roberts on Aug. 8, "... my immediate reaction is to wonder how the Court can possibly assert its superiority in its 'method of reasoning' over the reasoning of the Congress."

The letters signal Roberts to expect and prepare for vigorous questioning, says Mr. Reynolds, Specter's spokesman. "He wanted to make sure Judge Roberts is prepared to answer his questions - that if he hadn't done his homework, that he would prior to coming to the hearing."

What's important, Specter has said, is determining Roberts's approach to the law. Questions that probe the nominee's views on privacy, affirmative action, comparable worth, and voting rights are all in bounds. He says he's reserving his own judgment on Roberts until he has heard him testify.

That approach encourages Judiciary Democrats, as well as outside groups opposing Roberts. "I have a high degree of confidence that [Specter] will carry out his duties objectively [and] carefully, and ferret out the facts," says Bruce Gordon, president and CEO of the NAACP, who announced his opposition to Roberts's confirmation on Tuesday. "I have concerns..., but Specter is not one of them."

While many observers expect Roberts to be confirmed, the hearings may get rough. For Specter, who has one of the sharpest legal minds in the Senate, it becomes a defining moment.

"He's a man who seems to take his legacy seriously," says Professor Turley. "The last thing he wants is to be viewed as the man who ran through Roberts on a party vote."

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