WASHINGTON — With the hearings on Judge Robert H. Bork's Supreme Court nomination set to begin Tuesday, three senators who could hold the key to his confirmation or rejection by the Judiciary Committee said Sunday that they will oppose the controversial jurist unless he answers tough questions about his beliefs on a multitude of legal issues.
Serving notice that they expect Bork to field unpleasant and perhaps embarrassing questions, the lawmakers--considered to be crucial swing votes on the 14-member panel--said they will limit their inquiries to broad subjects and not ask Bork about specific cases that may come before the court.
"The worst thing he (Bork) could do is stonewall us and not give us answers," said Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who along with panel members Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) is uncommitted. "I need some answers. And if he doesn't answer, I'm going to be hard-pressed to conclude I should vote for him."
Barrage of Questions
DeConcini and Specter said they would vote for Bork if they are satisfied with his responses. But before that occurs, they said, President Reagan's conservative nominee will have to answer a barrage of questions about his views on abortion, affirmative action, voting rights, the Watergate controversy, contraception issues and other concerns.
Bork, a U.S. Appeals Court judge whose nomination has triggered a major confrontation between the White House and liberal groups, must also respond to charges that his appointment would tip the ideological balance of the Supreme Court to the right for years to come, the senators said.
The demand for such answers contrasts with previous hearings, in which Supreme Court nominees have been screened mostly for their judicial competence rather than their legal views. The Bork nomination, however, has stirred strong passions on both sides, and committee members are predicting intense sessions over the next two weeks.
"These hearings will be marked with a great deal of tension at times," Heflin said. "I don't think they'll get out of hand, but they could come close to verbal fisticuffs. You have the lines drawn."
Reagan, mindful of such controversy, has said repeatedly that he picked Bork for his judicial competence rather than his ideological views. White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Bork is a mainstream jurist who has "a great respect for the meaning of the Constitution."
Few members of the Senate Judiciary Committee question Bork's intellectual acumen. But some have said they are troubled by his often controversial opinions, expressed in legal briefs, court rulings and professional journals during his 34-year career.
Specter, for example, voiced concern Sunday during an appearance on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley" whether Bork "fits into the tradition of U.S. constitutional jurisprudence, whether he will stay with his professional writings that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment applies only in racial situations, whereas the court for more than a century has applied it to aliens, to women, to indigents and others."
Opposes Abortion Ruling
Another concern, Specter said, is Bork's strong opposition to the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion and his belief that the issue should be left up to individual states.
"It isn't really whether he's going to decide Roe vs. Wade (the key abortion case) one way or another," he said. "The big question for me is that the court should retain the power to decide these questions. That has been the traditional role of the court."
DeConcini, appearing on the same program, said some of Bork's positions, including his strict interpretation of rights spelled out in the Constitution, "are very disturbing." More important, he said, the nomination has raised integrity questions, such as Bork's dismissal of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973 during the "Saturday Night Massacre."
Liberal critics on the committee, such as Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), are likely to hit Bork with these issues repeatedly, DeConcini said, and the nominee's fate may be determined by how well he handles "some very difficult questions, perhaps posed in an uncomfortable manner."
Views of Others
Aside from the three senators interviewed Sunday, six Democrats on the committee are generally viewed as opponents of the nomination, and five Republicans are expected to vote in favor of Bork.
The committee's decision will be reported to the full Senate, where some lawmakers have threatened a filibuster against the Bork nomination. DeConcini and Specter said that it would be a mistake to kill the nomination without a vote of the full Senate and that partisans on both sides should tone down the political rhetoric.
"Many people have said too much without an adequate basis," Specter said. "I think we've got to hear Judge Bork. Then we've got to decide whether we are for him or against him."