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Roberts Readies for Confirmation Hearings

For John Roberts (search), getting ready for next week's Senate hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court is a lot like appearing as a lawyer before the high court: copious amounts of reading and rehearsing answers to any conceivable question that might be fired at him.

This time, though, the case being argued by Roberts is his own, not a client's.

Roberts has been preparing for his confirmation hearing in much the same way he did for his 39 appearances before the Supreme Court (search) as a lawyer before becoming a federal appeals court judge two years ago.

That experience will be key, said Supreme Court historian David Garrow.

"Judge Roberts has a combination of substantive expertise and stylistic smoothness" given his time in front of the nine justices, Garrow said. "He's likely to fly through this without anyone laying a fingernail on him."

Roberts, however, is taking nothing for granted. He's spent much of August reviewing briefing books on the Senate Judiciary Committee's pet legal issues, and the questions senators have asked nominees to lower federal courts and Supreme Court nominees before him.

Bush administration lawyers and outside constitutional law experts have been grilling the nominee in "robust" question and answer sessions at the Justice Department, said an official familiar with the process, speaking on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to speak on the record.

He's also likely looking over many of his decisions as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and the issues he worked on as a government lawyer for the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Roberts and the White House aren't talking about his preparation for the hearings, which open Sept. 6. He is to read an opening statement on day one, then endure several days of questioning.

As the hearing date nears, Roberts is also likely facing what are called "murder boards" or "moot courts," officials said. That when the nominee sits in a room and answers questions from people pretending to be senators on the Judiciary Committee.

Even senators are interested in that process. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (search), the senior Democrat on the panel, asked Roberts about the process on Monday. "I did ask him who was playing my role and what were they asking, to save me time to have to prepare my own questions. He didn't take the bait," Leahy said with a laugh.

Roberts is no stranger to the process. He participated in two such rehearsals when he helped prepare Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search) for her confirmation hearings 24 years ago. In addition, he helped draft her suggested answers to anticipated questions from Judiciary Committee members back then.

It was O'Connor's announcement of retirement plans this summer that opened the first vacancy on the court in 11 years and led to President Bush's selection of Roberts to fill it.

Beth Nolan, a former White House counsel to President Clinton who helped prepare Justice Stephen Breyer for his confirmation hearing, called the moot courts dress rehearsals for the nominee.

"It's meant to be the show itself. And the nominee is to stay where he or she would be in the hearing. No jokes, no asides, no informal back and forth. You stay in your role as nominee on television," she said.

Former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson (search) of Tennessee has shadowed Roberts during courtesy meetings with senators the past two months. Thompson, now an actor on the TV series "Law and Order," also is likely telling Roberts what questions he can expect to get from specific senators, said Douglas Kmeic, a Pepperdine University law professor who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

"The best thing you can do for a nominee is ascertain where the likely questions are coming from," said Kmeic, who helped with the successful nominations of Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, and the failed Robert Bork nomination. "Part of this comes from the nominee himself, reporting back on the conversations he's had with members of the Senate."

The rest, Kmeic said, will come from Thompson as he meets privately with his former colleagues and from senators' public statements and speeches.

A few of the 18 Judiciary Committee senators — 10 male Republicans, seven Democratic men and one Democratic woman — have already revealed what they plan to ask Roberts.

Chairman Arlen Specter (search), R-Pa., has said he will ask the nominee about the court's attitude toward Congress, which Specter has described as "disrespectful." Sen. Dianne Feinstein (search), D-Calif., says she'll asked about abortion rights, since Roberts would replace O'Connor, a swing vote on the issue.

In addition to preparing for the senators' question, nominees also are prepped to think about how they will appear to the millions of people watching on television, Nolan said.

"Somebody will actually film or tape part of the moot for you or some other session in which you're asked questions and answer them, and then you review what you look like, because people aren't often aware of their own particular habits of scratching or running their fingers through their hair or whatever it is," she said.