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Abortion a Key Issue in Questioning of Supreme Court Nominee

The Senate Judiciary Committee is in its second day of hearings into the nomination of Judge John Roberts to be chief justice of the United States. The nominee has been questioned on a range of issues, including abortion.

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, questioned Judge Roberts about the divisive issue of abortion amid concern from some Democrats and liberal groups that the nominee might overturn the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing the procedure.

Judge Roberts said while he would not discuss his views on specific rulings, he said the landmark case and a 1992 case upholding it are "entitled to respect" under a legal principle that says settled rulings should be allowed to stand.

"It is settled as a precedent of the court," he said.

Judge Roberts dismissed any suggestion his Catholic faith would influence his decisions about abortion, which the Roman Catholic Church opposes, if he is confirmed.

The top Democrat on the committee, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, questioned Judge Roberts about a controversial memo prepared by senior Justice Department officials in 2002, and later disavowed by the Bush administration, that said U.S. officials could only be prosecuted for abusing detainees if the abuse was of "an extreme nature."

Judge Roberts offered the following response.

"Senator, I believe no one is above the law under our system, and that includes the president," he said. "The president is fully bound by the law, the constitution and statutes."

Some Democrats expressed frustration when Judge Roberts declined to comment on some issues that he said could come before the high court, including one exchange between Senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, and Judge Roberts.

Biden: "Go ahead and continue not to answer."

Roberts: "Senator, my answer is that the independence and integrity of the Supreme Court requires that nominees before this committee for a position on that court not forecast, give predictions, give hints, about how they might rule in cases that might come before the Supreme Court."

Biden: "I got that."

A sharper exchange between Senator Biden and Judge Roberts included chairman Specter, who admonished his Democratic colleague for interrupting the nominee.

Specter: "Now wait a minute, let him finish his answers, Senator Biden."

Biden: "His answers are misleading, with all due respect."

Specter: "Well, wait a minute, they may be misleading, but they are his answers."

Biden: "Okay, fire away, Judge."

Roberts: "With respect, they are my answers, and with respect, they are not misleading, they are accurate."

If confirmed, the 50-year-old Judge Roberts could influence the direction of the court for decades, as Supreme Court justices can serve for life. He would succeed Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who died earlier this month from thyroid cancer.