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Judiciary committee approves Roberts, 13-5; 3 Democrats join GOP in supporting nominee

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of John Roberts as chief justice of the United States in a 13-5 vote Sept. 22.

Three Democrats joined the 10 Republican members of the panel to send Roberts’ nomination to the Senate floor, moving the federal appeals court judge a step nearer to the Supreme Court. The Senate is expected to provide Roberts with a strong majority of at least 60 votes when it acts on his confirmation during the week of Sept. 26-30.

If confirmed, Roberts will become the 17th chief justice, succeeding William Rehnquist, who died Sept. 3 after a lengthy battle with thyroid cancer. Unless Senate action is delayed, Roberts will be confirmed in time to sit on the Supreme Court when it begins oral arguments in the new term Oct. 3.

While the Senate nears confirmation of Roberts, it awaits the next high court nominee from President Bush. Retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has agreed to remain on the bench while another nominee goes through the confirmation process. Bush reportedly will announce his nominee soon. His announcement is likely to set off an even more contentious debate over a replacement for O’Connor, who, unlike Rehnquist, is not considered a conservative.

“I believe the president intends to await final action on the Roberts confirmation, and I think there will be a nominee very promptly thereafter,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said during the committee’s proceedings.

Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Russ Feingold and Herbert Kohl, both of Wisconsin, joined the Judiciary Committee’s Republicans in voting for Roberts. Voting against the nominee were Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Joseph Biden of Delaware, Dianne Feinstein of California, Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Durbin of Illinois.

Leahy, the panel’s minority leader, said he found in his conscience it was “better to vote yes than no. Judge Roberts is a man of integrity. I take him at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda.”

Kohl said he “was troubled by parts” of Roberts’ record but “impressed by the man himself.” He said he would “vote my hopes and not my fears.”

In a written statement, Sen. John Cornyn, R.-Texas, a committee member, commended his colleagues “who were able to put Judge Roberts’ qualifications above the ideological litmus tests of outside groups. It is my earnest hope and plea that when this nomination reaches the Senate floor my colleagues will resist the outside special interest groups, who, once again, are ‘crying wolf.’”

Social conservatives applauded the committee’s vote and continued to provide widespread support to Roberts, though the former aide in the Reagan and first Bush administrations has not committed himself on the Roe v. Wade opinion legalizing abortion. Pro-life and pro-family advocates appear content to trust his announced judicial philosophy. During the committee’s hearings, Roberts said judges should have a “limited” role and he endorsed “judicial restraint.”

The vote “reflects the fact that John Roberts is an exceptional nominee with a conservative judicial philosophy –- a philosophy that represents mainstream America,” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, said in a statement.

Jan LaRue, Concerned Women for America’s chief counsel, said Roberts’ confirmation vote should be “overwhelming.”

“Only those willing to jump off a political cliff by joining hands with the die-hard abortion, gay rights and environmental groups can be expected to oppose this supremely qualified nominee,” LaRue said in a statement.

After the vote, organizations promoting abortion and homosexual rights maintained their opposition to Roberts.

The committee “put politics ahead of protecting women’s lives and health,” said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, in a statement. “Roberts’ weak assurances that he brings ‘no ideology’ and ‘no agenda’ to the court are similar to assurances made previously by other Supreme Court justices,” she said, citing Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who have voted to restrict abortion.

Roberts, 50, has served on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals since 2003 and at onetime was a clerk for Rehnquist.

Bush nominated Roberts July 19 to replace O’Connor, who retired July 1 after 24 years of service. Two days after Rehnquist’s death, however, the president announced his selection of Roberts as chief justice.

The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary announced Aug. 17 it unanimously had found Roberts “well qualified” for the high court.
With reporting by Michael Foust.