WASHINGTON -- For a man who likens the job he wants to calling balls and strikes, John Roberts surely could have used a catcher's mask as he fielded hours of questions Tuesday from the Senate Judiciary Committee.
From the first question of the day -- on abortion -- right through the alphabet to the Zimmer case on voting rights, Roberts held his own as senators tried to goad him into revealing more of his thoughts than he wanted on the controversial issues of the day.
The artful dodger employed a mix of humor, history and humility as he found 50 ways to defend his views and politely demur when he didn't want to discuss them.
Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts glances around the Caucus Room of the Senate's Russell office building during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Sept. 12, 2005. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
When Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., complained that Roberts was filibustering, the judge lightly scolded, "That's a bad word, senator."
But when Biden later complained, "His answers are misleading, with all respect," Roberts' response was more pointed.
"With respect, they are my answers," he said. "And, with respect, they're not misleading, they're accurate."
On Day Two of the hearings on Roberts' nomination to be chief justice of the United States, there was a lot of "respect" getting flung around.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., differing with Roberts' take on a war powers case, began, "Judge, with all due respect, the cases in Vietnam were not based on a specific law passed by Congress to get out ..."
A few minutes later, Roberts, differing with Leahy's interpretation of a memorandum he once wrote, began, "With respect, senator, you're vastly over-reading the memorandum."
There also were a lot of baseball metaphors, playing off Roberts' declaration a day earlier that a justice should be like an umpire, making sure everyone plays by the rules.
Biden complained that questioning Roberts was "like pitching to Ken Griffey," adding that the judge had hit a home run in his opening statement Monday.
Nodding toward actor-turned-senator-turned-actor Fred Thompson, who is helping guide Roberts through the nomination process, Biden added, "I'd much rather be pitching to Arthur Branch, sitting behind you there, on 'Law and Order,' than you."
But Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., questioned whether Roberts' umpire analogy worked at all.
"No two umpires, or no two referees, have the same strike zone or call the same kind of a basketball game," said Kohl, who knows a thing or two about basketball as owner of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. "And ballplayers and basketball players understand that, depending upon who the umpire is and who the referee is, the game can be called entirely differently."
Tuesday's televised hearing gave many Americans perhaps their first and last best chance to see Roberts describe his views on the law, given that the Supreme Court itself operates largely as a closed shop.
Roberts tried to display humility, making several references to the possibility that he still could wind up back on the federal appeals court if his nomination were not approved.
When Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, questioned Roberts about a comment that Justice David Souter had made during his confirmation hearing, Roberts nimbly sidestepped, saying: "Well, I don't want to directly comment on what Justice Souter said. He is either going to be a colleague or continue to be one of my bosses. So I want to maintain good relations in either case."
But at other times, it was as if Roberts couldn't help but come across as the smartest kid in the class.
Biden cut Roberts off mid-sentence as he launched into an explanation of the Supreme Court's three-tiered analysis of the equal protection clause, saying, "I know what that is."
At another point, though, Roberts, holding one lifetime appointment and in line for another, was smart enough to disavow his own words from two decades ago in which he questioned life tenures.
"You know, that would be one of those memos I no longer agree with," he said, with a sly grin.
Roberts also drew a chuckle when he was asked if President Bush should chose a women to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
After Roberts satisfied himself that Kohl was talking about the next vacancy, not his own potential seat on the court, he offered, "I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment in any way about the president's future selections -- other than to say that I'm happy with his past ones."
That prompted Kohl to laughingly pronounce, "You're not an automaton."
© Copyright 2005 Associated Press