John G. Roberts: What Answers Is He Going To Give

In 39 arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, John G. Roberts earned a reputation as an unflappable advocate for his clients. But this week, when Roberts testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in his own bid to join the high court, he'll face a different challenge. Instead of sparring with nine erudite justices interested in ferreting out fine points of the law, Roberts will confront 18 senators eager to score political points and rack up minutes on the cable news channels. While the senators will try to press Roberts for specifics on controversial topics like civil rights, abortion and congressional authority, Roberts will attempt to keep his answers as general as possible without seeming to stonewall. "There's going to be a pretty restrictive line that he's not going to cross, and some senators aren't going to be happy about it," says one person close to Roberts's confirmation team who did not want to be quoted talking about the secretive preparation process.

Roberts has had plenty of practice. In at least 10 closed "murder board" sessions at the Department of Justice over the past few weeks, the nominee has wrangled with administration officials, lawyers and law professors playing the role of senators. Though a few have been full-blown mock panels of 18 "senators," other sessions have included just a handful of lawyers quizzing Roberts. Used to strict time limits and impatient justices, Roberts was firing off answers quickly; some participants urged him to slow down and let windy senators run out the clock, says an adviser who asked not to be named because the sessions were private. Administration officials assume Roberts will get grilled about abortion and many of the memos released from his days in the Reagan administration. They also worry that he may be pressed on the White House's refusal to release records from his days in the solicitor general's office.

Senators want to pin down Roberts's judicial philosophy, but they know the direct approach may not work. "I don't think you can ask how he would decide Roe for the future [or] extract a commitment from him," Sen. Arlen Specter, Republican committee chair, tells NEWSWEEK. But Specter says he plans to press Roberts on whether Roe--reaffirmed in 38 other decisions--is a "superprecedent" not to be tampered with. A source close to the prep who requested anonymity to speak more freely about the process says Roberts will likely follow the lead of Clarence Thomas, who confirmed a constitutional right to privacy encompassing contraception but steered clear of specifics on abortion in his hearings. "This discussion on the right to privacy will be important," says Sen. Sam Brownback.

Outside the hearing room, interest groups on both sides plan the kind of spin wars usually reserved for a presidential debate. Look for dueling press conferences, a raft of rapid-response e-mails and outside experts armed with talking points. Despite stepped-up efforts from liberal groups, Roberts is widely expected to win Senate confirmation later this month. The key question is margin of victory: a bigger bipartisan win--approaching 80 yea votes--could give George W. Bush more latitude in filling the next court vacancy.

John G. Roberts: What Answers Is He Going To Give | News