Washington Supreme Court nominee John Roberts paid courtesy calls on key senators Wednesday as the White House rolled out a methodical campaign to secure his confirmation and Democrats posed their first probing questions.
"No one is entitled to a free pass to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, senior Democrat on the committee that will question the 50-year-old appeals court judge later this summer.
Abortion and access to internal government memos loomed as likely flash points as Democrats pointed toward the nationally televised proceedings.
But majority Republicans showed no doubt about the outcome.
"We intend to have a respectful process here and confirm you before the first Monday in October," Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, second-ranking Republican, told Roberts.
Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pledged "full, fair and complete" hearings, most likely in early September, plenty of time to meet President Bush's goal of a final vote before the high court convenes for its new term.
"I think that they will be extensive hearings, because there will be many questions which will be raised," the Pennsylvania Republican said. "But based on Judge Roberts' qualifications, my instinct is that he'll have the answers."
Bush and conservatives who swiftly rallied around Roberts were counting on it - yet the administration took no chances as it sought to fill the seat currently held by Sandra Day O'Connor. She has frequently cast the deciding vote in recent years on 5-4 rulings relating to abortion rights, affirmative action, states rights and more.
O'Connor's retirement opened the first vacancy on the high court in 11 years, and gave the president a chance to place a more conservative stamp on the federal courts.
Roberts began his day at the White House, where he had breakfast with the president.
The next stop was the Capitol, where he made the rounds of leading Republican and Democratic senators. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., was at his elbow, placed there by White House aides determined to smooth the way to confirmation. At the same time, the administration and the Republican National Committee worked together to build support.
Progress For America, a conservative organization with ties to the administration, unveiled the opening salvo in an ad campaign designed to ensure confirmation. It stressed Roberts' resume of academic and professional accomplishments and public service - first in his class at Harvard law school, confirmed by the Senate to his current position, lawyer in two administrations.
The commercial marked the beginning of a confirmation battle of unrivaled cost but uncertain intensity.
For now, at least, the ads touting Roberts went uncountered. However, Ralph Neas, president of People For The American Way, a group allied with the Democrats, said the organization "will have the money to be in radio and TV and in print. It's all a question of strategic timing."
NARAL-Pro Choice America, which opposes Roberts' nomination, staged a demonstration outside a Senate office building during the day.
Another organization, Alliance for Justice, issued a lengthy paper that raised questions about some of Roberts' rulings from the bench. It said he had "participated in efforts to weaken voting rights, equal education rights, reproductive rights, environmental protections and proscriptions on state-sponsored religion."
So far, not a single Democratic senator has called for Roberts' outright rejection, and there was no public talk of trying to block a yes or no vote.
O'Connor weighs in
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said Wednesday that the man President Bush nominated to replace her is "first rate," but she's disappointed the nominee isn't a woman.
"I have watched Judge Roberts since he has been an advocate before our court, and I and my colleagues have been enormously impressed with his scholarship and his skills," O'Connor said.
"I am disappointed, in a sense, to see the percentage of women on our court drop by 50 percent, but I can't be disappointed in the quality of person nominated. He's first rate," she said.
"Do I believe this is a filibusterable nominee? The answer would be no, not at this time," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, an abortion-rights supporter.
Like Leahy, several Democratic senators said they intended to question Roberts closely about whether he would separate his personal views from his judicial rulings.
"The key question is whether he will uphold core constitutional and statutory principles," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. In remarks on the Senate floor, the Massachusetts Democrat said a decision Roberts authored in one case while on the appeals court holds "sweeping implications not just for the environment but for a host of other important protections" such as Social Security, Medicare and the minimum wage.
Leahy, interviewed on CNN after meeting with Roberts, said, "We have right now the most activist Supreme Court I've seen in my lifetime. ... So I'm going to ask him are you going to be part of that same activist coalition, overturning settled law, rewriting the law yourself? And, among those, of course, is going to be Roe v. Wade," the 1973 ruling that established a woman's right to an abortion.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada hinted at another potential area of conflict when he publicly prodded Roberts to provide "written materials requested by senators."
Democrats have blocked confirmation votes on two high-profile nominees in recent years in disputes over access to documents. In one case, appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada withdrew his nomination in 2003. The other nomination, involving John Bolton, named ambassador to the United Nations, is unresolved.
Justice Department officials declined to say whether the administration was willing to turn over memos and other internal documents Roberts wrote while serving as the principal deputy solicitor general in the first Bush administration.
Roberts collected an unofficial endorsement during the day.
O'Connor, in Spokane, Wash., said she had seen him at work arguing cases before the court, and "I and my colleagues have been enormously impressed with his scholarship and his skills."
Still, she said she was "disappointed in a sense" that her departure would cut the number of women on the court in half.
Bush announced Roberts' selection in a prime-time televised appearance in the White House Tuesday night. He was one of five contenders whom Bush had interviewed, White House counselor Dan Bartlett disclosed.
The White House declined to reveal the names of the others. But The Associated Press learned from several sources at the state level that they included Edith Brown Clement, a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and Samuel Alito, a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.