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Senate Begin Postponed Supreme Court Confirmatiion

Senate To Begin Postponed Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings

Hearings will focus on John Roberts' views on precedent, constitutional issues

By Carrie Lee
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will begin confirmation hearings on John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush’s nominee as chief justice of the United States, on September 12.

Roberts’ hearings were scheduled to begin September 6, but were postponed after the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist September 3. President Bush had nominated Roberts to replace retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, but then nominated Roberts to replace Rehnquist as chief justice.

The chief justice of the United States is allotted the same one vote as the other eight Supreme Court justices when deciding a case, but is usually more influential in deciding which cases the court will hear each term. In addition, if the chief justice is in the majority on a case, he or she may write the opinion or assign it to an associate justice of his or her choice.

Supreme Court justices are appointed for life and hold the ultimate authority to decide U.S. law, including many issues affecting the daily life of Americans. The selection of potential justices is therefore a closely scrutinized and important process.

The confirmation hearing is one crucial step in the nomination process. After the president proposes a nominee, the Senate has the power to approve or disapprove the nominee. Article II, Section II of the U.S. Constitution states that the president “shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint” the justices of the Supreme Court.

For Roberts, a federal appeals court judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, the hearings -- the first Supreme Court confirmation hearings since 1994 -- will begin September 12 with 10-minute opening statements from members of the Judiciary Committee, the committee responsible for running the hearings. Roberts then will give his opening statement to the committee.

Each member of the committee -- 10 Republicans and eight Democrats – then will have 30 minutes to question the nominee in the first round of questioning and 20 minutes in the second round. If the committee requires further questioning, the “duration of such subsequent rounds as are desired will be determined as necessary,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter.

Roberts likely will spend at least two days answering the committee’s questions on topics such as his judicial record and approach to constitutional issues. The emphasis of these sessions will be a “detailed inquiry into Judge Roberts’ ideas on jurisprudence” -- particularly his views on stare decisis, or the upholding of legal precedent, according to Specter.

Because the Constitution does not specify criteria by which to evaluate a nominee, the questioning period can help each senator decide his or her vote. Questioning allows undecided senators to gain the necessary information to form an opinion. It also gives senators who already have decided for or against the nominee a chance to ask questions highlighting the nominee’s particular strengths or weaknesses. Senators can also use questioning to draw attention to specific issues that are of interest to their constituents.

Although the Senate must vote to confirm or deny the nomination, there is no constitutional requirement for the nominee to testify in a confirmation hearing. This practice did not start until 1925; it has since become a mainstay of the Supreme Court nomination process.

When questioning is complete, the committee will hear testimony from several panels of witnesses both in favor of and in opposition to the nominee. The American Bar Association, which gave Roberts its highest rating of “well qualified,” is one of the organizations usually invited to testify.

The confirmation hearings are open to the public, except for a closed session during which Roberts will review material about him obtained in a background check by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The committee then will vote on Roberts’ nomination, which, according to Specter, will likely happen by September 15.

The committee then reports its findings to the full Senate. It can report favorably or negatively on the nominee, or it may make no recommendation. A negative recommendation indicates that committee members have reservations about the nominee, but the nomination will go forward even with a negative or no recommendation.

A simple majority of senators must be present and voting to confirm a nominee. This time frame fits President Bush’s announcement in July of his goal to have Roberts confirmed before the Supreme Court begins its new term October 3.

Although the outcome of Roberts’ nomination is not yet determined, presidents historically have been very successful in getting their Supreme Court nominees approved. Since President George Washington made the first Supreme Court nomination in 1789, the Senate has approved approximately 80 percent of the 148 total nominations. The Senate has rejected only 12 nominees; the other nominees not approved declined the nomination, were withdrawn by the president, or had their candidacies lapse.

If the Senate confirms Roberts’ nomination, President Bush will sign a commission officially appointing Roberts as chief justice of the United States. An incoming justice then takes both a judicial oath of office, usually in private in the court, and a constitutional oath of office, usually in a televised ceremony at the White House.

If confirmed, Roberts will join the select group of 106 men and two women who have served on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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