John Roberts, the nominee to be U.S. chief justice, told a Senate panel that the Constitution contains a right to privacy, disavowing comments he made as a Reagan administration lawyer in the 1980s.
“The right to privacy is protected under the Constitution in various ways,” Roberts, 50, said in answer to a question from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter in Washington.
The Supreme Court has recognized a constitutional right to privacy guaranteeing access to abortion and contraceptives as well as the freedom to marry and procreate. Roberts's views on the subject had been in question, in part because of the language he used in a 1981 Justice Department memo, referring to the “so- called `right to privacy.”
Roberts, beginning a full day of questioning from senators in Washington, today said that memo was designed to reflect the views of Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold, who had recently given a speech on the topic. He said the document didn't convey his personal views.
Roberts, without addressing abortion or other specific social issues, said privacy protections were one aspect of the Constitution's due process clause.
“The court has explained that the liberty protected is not limited to freedom from physical restraint and that it's protected not simply procedurally, but as a substantive matter as well,” he said, reports Bloomberg.
According to USA Today, Roberts' remarks about privacy partially opened a window on his thinking, but they did not reveal how he would vote on questions of abortion rights.
During an exchange with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Roberts expressed respect for past decisions. He acknowledged the significance of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that made abortion legal nationwide, and a 1992 ruling in which the high court upheld Roe. Roberts did not, however, say whether he would support those decisions.
"I do think that it is a jolt to the legal system when you overrule a precedent," he said. "It is not enough that you may think the prior decision was wrongly decided." He said he would weigh many factors when considering whether to overturn a case, including stability in the law, public expectations and whether a prior court ruling had worked. Roberts declined to apply his view of precedent to abortion.