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Roberts Confirmation Hearings Begin Monday

Senate confirmation hearings begin Monday for Judge John Roberts, President Bush's choice to succeed the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee say they will give the Roberts nomination even greater scrutiny now that he has been nominated for the post of chief justice.

The president initially nominated Judge Roberts to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. But that changed with the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist and Mr. Bush decided to fill that vacancy first. He says he will nominate someone else to succeed Justice O'Connor in the near future.

In the meantime, conservative and liberal activist groups are gearing up for the confirmation battle over Judge Roberts.

Liberal groups are pushing Senate Democrats to closely question the nominee about his views on a wide range of legal issues including abortion, privacy concerns and civil rights.

Judith Schaeffer is deputy director of the liberal group People for the American Way.

"The Supreme Court has the final word on what our constitution means, it has the final word in any lawsuit that it chooses to hear, and so, who sits on the Supreme Court -- and there are only nine justices -- obviously is of great importance, particularly since that appointment is for life," said Ms. Schaeffer.

Conservative groups and Senate Republicans are also energized to advocate on behalf of Judge Roberts.

Douglas Kmiec is a conservative legal scholar at Pepperdine University in California. He says Judge Roberts has the right temperament to be chief justice.

"He is someone who has described his judicial philosophy as being guided by the virtue of humility,” he said. “And those who have worked with him as I have, I worked with him in the Reagan administration, remember him to be exactly that way, that when issues were presented where he was in disagreement with others, it was not his way to immediately give up his point of view or to insist upon his point of view, but to listen to others."

Political analysts predict Democrats will use some of Judge Roberts' past writings to depict him as an extreme conservative.

Stuart Rothenberg publishes a political newsletter in Washington.

"But if you can show that somebody is an extremist, that they are out of sync with American values and American society, that can sink them ideologically,” he explained. “But so far we are not seeing that with this judge who is nominated for justice."

Republicans counter that there is nothing extreme in Judge Roberts past writings or rulings and that there is no question that he is well qualified for the job.

University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato says the Roberts hearings and Senate debate over his nomination will serve as a reminder of the impact of the Supreme Court on American society.

"So each new justice has a major, really a tremendous impact on individual lives, on the exercise of our rights and responsibilities and I think most Americans already know that but they will be reminded in a dramatic fashion during the hearings," said Mr. Sabato.

Many conservatives see Judge Roberts as a younger version of William Rehnquist, who served on the court for 33 years and as chief justice for the past 19 years.

Many legal experts do not expect a major shift on the court if the Senate confirms Judge Roberts.

A.E. Dick Howard is a constitutional scholar at the University of Virginia. He spoke to VOA's Focus program.

"I do not predict that we will have a wholesale move to the right because that is not the way the Supreme Court operates,” he noted. “They are not a constitutional court in the European or civil law sense. They are not a court that is able to decide abstract questions that may be put to them by one of the political branches of government. They only have the power to decide concrete cases or controversies, nearly all of which come to them from the lower courts, state or federal."

Many political and legal analysts predict that the confirmation battle over the yet to be named nominee to replace Justice O'Connor could be more intense that the process for Judge Roberts. That is because Justice O'Connor has been a key centrist voice on the court and has often been the deciding vote in a series of five to four rulings in her years on the court.