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Independent-minded Specter takes over

Raising the gavel with a grin, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter opened his first hearing Thursday by allowing more criticism of the Bush administration than his predecessor and by questioning some of the Patriot Act's police powers.

With his changes, questions and comments, Specter proclaimed his independence and said he expected the same from Alberto Gonzales, President Bush's nominee to be attorney general.

"While Judge Gonzales is the appointee of the president . . . he's representing the people of the United States, a key distinction which I'm pleased to say in advance that Judge Gonzales has noted in the statement which he has submitted," Specter said.

He questioned extending some of the police powers in the Patriot Act passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks, particularly language requiring judges to issue warrants without making police or prosecutors justify them.

"Why can't we have that traditional probable cause requirement on the obtaining of those records?" asked Specter. The law is up for renewal this year.