Thursday, July 28, 2005

A group of female Democratic senators said yesterday that they will vote against Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. unless he vows to uphold abortion rights.

Yesterday’s comments exceed previous posturing by Democrats calling on Judge Roberts to state his position on settled cases, a practice that previous high court nominees have avoided. They also come closer than ever to establishing a single-issue “litmus test” for his confirmation.

“Thousands of women a year died in back alleys,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said of the days before Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established abortion rights.

“For more than 20 years, Sandra Day O’Connor has been an important vote in upholding Roe v. Wade,” she said. “Will Judge Roberts be that same important voice?”

Sean Rushton, director of the conservative Committee for Justice, groaned when he read the comments.

“This is a single-issue litmus test that strikes at the heart of an independent judiciary,” he said. “It proves that the Democratic Party is increasingly focused solely on the issue of abortion on demand. Their greatest fear is a nonpolitical judge who will read the law as it’s written.”

At a press conference yesterday, the women were asked whether any of them could vote in favor of Judge Roberts if he said Roe was wrongly decided. None spoke up. Mrs. Boxer said she would find it “impossible” to vote for him.

Asked specifically, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, clarified that she would wait to hear Judge Roberts’ answers during his confirmation hearings.

“I’m not going to be speculating,” she said.

Also on stage were Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington. Although Miss Mikulski did not say that she would support Judge Roberts if he opposes abortion, she said the coalition of female senators cared about more than just abortion rights.

The remarks came on a day when Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and the dean of his state’s congressional delegation, sent a pointed letter to Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, scolding him over a report that he asked Judge Roberts about his Catholic faith. In recent years, “Catholic faith” has become code for opposition to abortion rights.

“As Catholics, we certainly share a common experience, including the awful legacy of anti-Catholic bigotry that permeated American politics well into the 20th century,” Mr. Hyde wrote Mr. Durbin, both of whom are Catholic.

“‘Irish Need Not Apply’ signs were common in the storefront windows of Chicago’s neighborhoods until a few years ago, a bias driven largely by the Catholic faith shared by most Irish-Americans,” Mr. Hyde continued. “I want to believe that you do not wish to turn back the clock to that ugly period of our history, and that’s why these comments attributed to you concern me.”

The letter stems from a column earlier this week based on an interview with Mr. Durbin. According to the column, Mr. Durbin asked Judge Roberts how he would handle a case that touched on his religious faith, and Judge Roberts said he’d recuse himself.

Mr. Durbin has since disavowed the claim, and Judge Roberts has told Republican senators that he said no such thing.

Although Judge Roberts’ confirmation process continues to go more smoothly than many anticipated, yesterday’s comments likely will roil the Senate’s hottest political passions.

Mrs. Cantwell said that it isn’t “good enough” to only ask about a nominee’s allegiance to Roe. They also must establish that the nominee believes in an earlier court decision that found “privacy rights” in the Constitution.

“I want to hear a nominee say that it is the basis for their philosophy,” she said. “If an individual says that, then I will be convinced that they truly believe in the right to privacy and will not be a member of the Supreme Court that will unsettle Roe v. Wade.”

Mrs. Cantwell, a former member of the Judiciary Committee, did not dispute that such a standard amounts to a “litmus test.”

“Some of you may think that that is a litmus test,” she said. “Well, I can tell you this, that over 60 percent of the American public believe that it is the job and role of the Senate to advise and consent on nominees, and it is very appropriate to ask nominees about their judicial philosophy.”

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