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Hearings Open for High Court Chief Justice Nominee

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings Monday into President Bush's nominee to be U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, Judge John Roberts.

The hearings are the first for a chief justice nominee in nearly two decades. If confirmed, the 50-year-old Judge Roberts could shape the direction of the court for years to come, as high court justices can serve for life.

With that in mind, Judiciary Committee Chairman, Republican Senator Arlen Specter, says his panel will conduct thorough and even-handed confirmation proceedings.

"I can assure you that the hearings will be full, fair and complete, and that the 18 members of the Judiciary Committee will have a full opportunity to examine Judge Roberts in some detail," he said.

Judge Roberts initially had been nominated by President Bush to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, but was elevated to chief justice nominee with the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist earlier this month.

Senate Democrats, concerned about Judge Roberts' conservative views on abortion and civil rights, vow tough questioning of the nominee.

"This is the only chance the American people, all the American people, have to see what he is," said Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the committee. "It is the only chance, no matter what part of the country you are from, no matter who you are, this is the only time you get a chance to see - this is the person who is going to be given the power to protect my rights, so it is important to do it well."

Democrats acknowledge that have not found anything in Judge Roberts' record that would derail his nomination. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says he expects the nominee to be confirmed by the full Senate before the high court opens its fall session October 3.