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I come with 'no agenda,' Roberts tells hearing

Chief justice nominee to face questions about judicial philosophy

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Judge Roberts with his son, Jack, before his nomination hearing Monday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Chief justice nominee John Roberts on Monday promised to approach the law with "a certain humility" and told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he has "no agenda" on the bench.

His comments came on the first day of confirmation hearings for the vacant Supreme Court seat -- the first such hearing for a chief justice in 19 years.

Democrats on the committee pledged tough questioning of the federal judge, while Republicans countered he had the right to refuse to provide specifics on hot-button issues.

Roberts, a 50-year-old judge on the prestigious circuit court of appeals for Washington, was sworn in after the 18 senators on the committee gave opening remarks.

"I come before this committee with no agenda, no platform," said Roberts in his brief opening remarks. "I will approach every case with an open mind."

And using a baseball metaphor, he compared his judicial role to that of an umpire, saying, "My job is to call balls and strikes, not pitch or bat."

Committee chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said in opening the hearing that Roberts' impact on the court could last until the year 2040, if he stayed on the bench that long.

"Your prospective stewardship of the court, which could last until the year 2040 or longer ... and would present a very unique opportunity for a new chief justice to rebuild the image of the court away from what many believe it has become as super legislature," Specter said.

Roberts was originally nominated in July to fill the vacancy created by the pending retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

But after the sudden death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist September 3, President Bush asked Roberts to fill the top spot on the nine-member court. The full Senate ultimately must vote on whether to confirm him.

Earlier, he sat passively as some Democrats on the committee said they expected Roberts to fully address past statements concerning equal rights, civil rights and the role of the judiciary in limiting congressional power.

But many Democrats said they had not made their final decision regarding the Roberts nomination and that they might vote for him if he responds candidly to their questions.

"This hearing is the only chance that 'We the People' have to hear from and reflect on the suitability of the nominee to be a final arbiter of the meaning of the Constitution," Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee's ranking Democrat said. "Open and honest public conversation with the nominee in these hearing rooms is an important part of this process."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, the only woman on the panel, said Roberts' views on abortion rights would be of special importance.

"One of the most important issues that needs to be addressed by you is the constitutional right to privacy," she told Roberts. "It would be very difficult for me to vote to confirm someone to the Supreme Court whom I knew would overturn Roe v. Wade," the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion.

And Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said Roberts must answer questions about his judicial ideology.

"To me the pivotal question, which will determine my vote is this: Are you within the mainstream -- albeit the conservative mainstream -- or are you an ideologue who will seek to use the court to impose your views upon us?" Schumer said.

But Republicans urged Roberts to be cautious in what he tells the committee about how he would rule on certain issues.

"Some have said that nominees who do not spill their guts about whatever a senator wants to know are hiding something from the American people," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "Some compare a nominee's refusal to violate his judicial oath or abandon judicial ethics to taking the Fifth Amendment. These might be catchy sound bites, but they are patently false."

"Don't take the bait," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Roberts in the hearings. "Don't go down that road. Do exactly the same thing every nominee, Republican and Democrat alike, has done. Decline to answer any question that you feel would compromise your ability to do your job. The vast majority of the Senate, I am convinced, will not punish you for doing so."

Other Republicans widely praised Roberts' record as a judge and former government attorney.

While Roberts is expected to win Senate approval, the political backdrop to the hearings is expected to intensify, as President Bush still must decide his candidate to replace O'Connor. He indicated that decision would come after the Roberts hearings have concluded.

Several dozen protesters on both sides of the abortion debate rallied outside the Supreme Court Monday.

Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, has said he wants the hearings to wrap up this week, allowing a vote by the full Senate in time for Roberts to join the court before the fall sessions begins October 3.

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