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Critics, supporters battle over Roberts

Sen. Feinstein lists questions she wants answered

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LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- As critics and supporters of John Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court sparred Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, laid out to a crowd of California lawyers the questions she wants answered before she makes up her mind:

  • "Does he have respect for precedent?" she asked the hundreds who attended a public forum luncheon sponsored by the Los Angeles County Bar Association and Public Counsel in the Biltmore Hotel.
  • "Will he resist judicial activism?
  • "Will he follow the law, rather than seek to create the law?
  • "Does he see the role of the court as ensuring access to justice for all?
  • "Does he believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned?
  • "Does he have the compassion and empathy for the real-life problems that people face?"
  • Feinstein, the sole woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she would not vote to approve anyone she considers to be extremist.

    "It is crucial that the nominee who replaces Justice Sandra Day O'Connor not only be intelligent and well-qualified but balanced and fair. His views should be within the mainstream and considered, and they should be without bias," Feinstein said. "In other words, extreme ideology from the right or left is unacceptable."

    The Senate panel is to begin hearings September 6 on Roberts' record.

    Feinstein noted that O'Connor, who is retiring, has long played a pivotal role on the court. Of the 193 decisions handed down by a 5-4 vote, O'Connor's vote was decisive in 148, including a number of controversial rulings, the Democrat from California said.

    "It is my hope that Judge Roberts would play a role similar to Justice O'Connor's on the court, and bring with him a voice defined by temperance and open-mindedness," she said.

    Roe v. Wade

    Feinstein added she would find it "very difficult" to vote to confirm anyone "whom I knew would overturn Roe v. Wade," the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion. At that, the crowd erupted in applause.

    "I remember what it was like then when abortion was illegal," the 72-year-old San Francisco native said. "When I was a college student, I watched the passing of the plate to collect money so young women could go to Tijuana [Mexico] for an abortion. I knew a woman who ended her life because she was pregnant."

    She said she does not know how the conservative nominee might react to such real-life dilemmas, and Feinstein urged that the Judiciary Committee be given "all of the relevant materials that shed light on Judge Roberts' thinking."

    Earlier Wednesday, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way came out against the nomination, saying Roberts' record shows he would "undermine Americans' rights and freedoms" and could shift the balance of the high court to the right for generations.

    An "Antonin Scalia in sheep's clothing" is how PFAW President Ralph Neas described Roberts to reporters, referring to the conservative justice.

    PFAW released a 50-page interim report opposing the nomination and said a more comprehensive report will follow before Senate confirmation hearings begin next month.

    "The principal purpose of this report, our mission, is to share these facts with the American people," Neas said.

    Young nominee

    Neas urged national debate on Supreme Court nominees, saying the issue is going to have "a dramatic effect on us, our children and our grandchildren." The nominee's youth -- Roberts is 50 -- means he could serve on the court for nine presidential terms, Neas said.

    The report, posted on the PFAW Web page, criticizes Roberts' record on civil rights and privacy, saying he "often came down to the right of ultraconservatives." The report contends that, if confirmed, Roberts would "undermine Americans' rights and freedoms."

    Roberts supporters also turned out Wednesday. A group of female leaders called "Women for Roberts" held a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington at the same time the PFAW was holding its event there.

    Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal Opportunity said Roberts' views are "firmly in the mainstream" and he doesn't "have a sexist bone in his body."

    "What is happening now in this Roberts nomination is simply a last-ditch, desperate effort on the part of feminists, who lost their battles for such things as comparable worth 20 years ago, to try to restart those battles again," she said.

    Brigida Benitez, a board member of the Republican National Lawyers Association, said no one has found any reason to disqualify the judge.

    "No one has raised a single fact to show why Judge Roberts should not be confirmed," she said. "Assumptions or speculations are not facts."

    Chamber of Commerce support

    The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also backed President Bush's nominee Wednesday, saying in a written statement that Roberts' "experience will serve the court and the nation favorably."

    "Roberts has attracted broad, bipartisan support for his fairness, keen intellect, open-mindedness and judicious practice of the law," Chamber President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said. "He is highly regarded and well respected by the legal and business communities."

    Roberts represented the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in two cases in which the organization filed friend-of-the-court briefs before the Supreme Court in the 2001-2002 term.

    Robin Conrad, a counsel to the Chamber of Commerce, said the cases involved questions over interstate commerce laws and whether state laws conflicted with a federal act.

    Access to documents

    Meanwhile, PFAW has taken legal action to gain access to thousands of pages of documents from Roberts' tenure in Kenneth Starr's solicitor general's office during the administration of President Bush's father. The White House has refused to release them.

    Neas urged the Senate to reject Roberts in the event such documents are not provided.

    More than 65,000 pages of documents written by or related to Roberts have been made public, and Neas said PFAW lawyers had pored over them. Memo after memo demonstrated Roberts' "hostility to protect the rights and civil liberties of Americans," Neas said.

    Neas predicted the nominee, if confirmed, would "turn back the clock on civil liberties."

    He pointed out that conservatives Robert Bork, whose nomination by President Reagan was defeated 58-42, and Clarence Thomas, whose nomination in 1991 was narrowly approved, were thought to be shoo-ins at this stage of the process.

    Mary Ellen Bork, whose husband failed to win nomination to the high court in 1987, spoke at the Women for Roberts event, denouncing critics she said are trying to distort the nominee's record.

    "Many of these groups are aligned with the left, and leftist causes, because they want the Supreme Court to enact their agenda instead of going through the legislative process," she said.

    CNN Producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report

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