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On Eve of Hearings for Roberts, Jewish Groups Make Voices Heard

As the Senate prepares for the first confirmation hearings of a Supreme Court justice in more than a decade, many lawmakers are hearing from Jewish organizations about the information they want gleaned from Judge John Roberts. Jewish organizations from across the political spectrum recently have sent letters and met with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee ahead of hearings set to begin Sept. 6.

While few groups plan to endorse or oppose Roberts, many do want senators to ask specific questions about how Roberts would rule on issues they care about, such as the separation of church and state.

Some groups already have staked out strong positions. The National Council of Jewish Women announced its opposition to Roberts the day he was nominated to the high court — they previously had opposed his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — and have been meeting with committee members in their home states throughout the summer, pushing them to reject Roberts.

Conversely, the Conservative movement declared Roberts “qualified” for office earlier this month, believing he “eschews an ideologically defined approach to judicial interpretation and shows a balanced respect for foundational documents and societal realities.”

Roberts’ confirmation is likely, barring any unforeseen developments, but Jewish groups are hoping strong questioning could help elucidate his views and draw more attention to their issues. A thorough confirmation process for Roberts also could set a precedent for other nominees in coming years.

“There is a very important role to play for organizations that are not opposing him to continue to press for comprehensive hearings and questions and answers that will shed light on our concerns,” said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Many Jewish groups say they want a better understanding of Roberts’ judicial philosophy.

Since his nomination was announced in July, papers and memos that Roberts has written have come out slowly, offering contradictory views of the man. Roberts took a strict conservative approach on many occasions, but he also had more moderate moments, such as working in 1986 to help overturn Colorado’s anti-gay constitutional amendment.

“Without asking Judge Roberts to comment on any pending cases, the committee can and should seek his views on the Supreme Court’s role in interpreting the United States Constitution and laws to guarantee and protect fundamental individual rights and civil liberties,” Barbara Balzer, the president of the Anti-Defamation League, and Abraham Foxman, the group’s national president, wrote last week to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Patick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee’s ranking minority member.

The six-page letter lays out five areas where Roberts should be asked to clearly enunciate his views — government and religion; civil rights and civil liberties; federalism; judicial philosophy; and reproductive rights and the right to privacy.

In the letter, which focuses at length on government and religion, the authors say the ADL is uncomfortable with Roberts’ suggestion in an amicus brief that the court should abandon the accepted test for determining the legality of religion in the public square, and they recommend that committee members question Roberts about it.

In recent weeks, papers from Roberts’ work in the Reagan and first Bush administrations have given some insight into his views on the separation of church and state. While working at the Justice Department in 1985, for example, he backed a moment of silent prayer in public schools.

The Orthodox Union sent a letter Monday to Specter and Leahy stressing that Roberts’ views on the separation of church and state are not out of the mainstream, as some liberal groups have suggested. The Orthodox Union often parts company with other Jewish groups, believing in a stronger government role in religion.

The Orthodox Union said it believes Roberts’ record is being distorted: They cite his push for religious inclusion in a speech by President Reagan to a Dallas prayer breakfast in 1984, when Roberts urged the president to change the term “the church” to “religion.”

“While there is more to be learned about Judge Roberts’ views on matters of religion and state, calling for his rejection based upon these assertions is wrong,” wrote Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs, and Mark Bane, the institute’s chairman.

The American Jewish Committee plans to offer a similar letter next week, laying out its areas of focus.

None of those groups is expected to endorse or oppose Roberts.

The Reform movement, however, is considering opposing Roberts, and will be watching the hearings to get a better sense of his thought process.

“The more we’ve learned, the more concerns we have,” Pelavin said. “A lot of the material that has come out raises very significant questions.”

Pelavin said the memos Roberts authored during his government work show he has strong views on many contentious issues.

Mark Waldman, director of public policy for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said his organization focused on Roberts’ credentials in deeming him qualified for the high court, but said the move was not a specific endorsement.

“We really wanted to address where we can make a specific contribution and be a unique voice,” Waldman said. “If we just talked about Issue A or Issue B, what difference is there between us and any other organization that is talking about Issue A or Issue B?”

NCJW is the only major Jewish group to oppose Roberts. The organization held a news conference on the nomination in Crawford, Texas — President Bush’s vacation home — and NCJW members from around the country have met with members of the judiciary committee during the congressional recess.

“Everything that has come out subsequently has bolstered our position,” said Sammie Moshenberg, the NCJW’s Washington director. “We certainly know enough now to say this is not someone who should have a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.”

Pelavin said it would be a mistake to believe Roberts’ confirmation is a fait accompli. He said it is predictable that discussion of Roberts would cool during the summer months, but believes the focus on Roberts, and the questions for him, will return after Labor Day.

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