The Senate Judiciary Committee is in its third day of confirmation hearings for Judge John Roberts, President Bush's nominee to be Chief Justice of the United States. Judge Roberts pledged, if confirmed, to promote consensus on the high court, which has often been sharply divided.
The Supreme Court under the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist frequently handed down 5-4 decisions on major cases, including the controversial Bush versus Gore, which ruled that George W. Bush won the close presidential election in 2000.
Judge Roberts says he believes the chief justice should seek agreement on the high court. "I do think the chief justice has a particular obligation to try to achieve consensus, consistent with everyone's individual oath, to uphold the Constitution, and that would certainly be a priority for me if I were confirmed," he said.
If confirmed, the 50-year-old Judge Roberts would become the youngest chief justice in 200 years. He would be able to influence the direction of the high court for decades.
Judiciary Committee chairman, Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, expressed frustration with the Supreme Court for overturning a number of laws passed by Congress. He criticized the court for denigrating the legislative branch, and asked Judge Roberts for a response.
"We do not like being treated as schoolchildren, requiring, as Justice [Anthony] Scalia says, 'a taskmaster'. Will you do better on this subject, Judge Roberts?" asked Senator Specter.
"Well, I do not think the court should be the taskmaster of Congress," answered Judge Roberts. "I think the Constitution is the court's taskmaster, and it is Congress' taskmaster as well, and we each have responsibilities under the Constitution."
Judge Roberts, as he did on Tuesday, refrained from responding to questions about issues that he thought could come before the high court, saying he did not want to prejudge cases.
Among the issues senators raised was a controversial Supreme Court decision that gives local governments the power to seize private property for commercial development. Without commenting on the case, Judge Roberts said Congress has the right to counter such a ruling with new legislation.
On Tuesday, Judge Roberts did not say whether he would overturn the 1973 case Roe-versus-Wade legalizing abortion, but he did say the ruling was, as he put it, settled precedent.
Democrats repeated their frustration with Judge Roberts for his refusal to answer their questions. "It is kind of interesting, this Kabuki dance we have in these hearings here," said Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, "as if the public does not have a right to know what you think about fundamental issues facing them."
Despite the sharp questioning, Judge Roberts is expected to be confirmed by the Republican-led Senate in time for the opening of the new session of the Supreme Court October 3.