WASHINGTON In a swift move that took many off guard, President Bush announced early yesterday that he wants John G. Roberts, Jr., to succeed William Rehnquist as the 17th chief justice of the United States.
For the second time in less than seven weeks, Judge Roberts, 50, stood beside Mr. Bush in the White House and listened to the President assure the American people that he is a superb judge in whom they can have confidence to decide issues of monumental importance.
Throughout his life he s inspired the respect and loyalty of others, Mr. Bush said. John Roberts built a record of excellence and achievement and reputation for good will and decency toward others in his extraordinary career.
On July 19, Mr. Bush introduced the conservative but relatively obscure judge who has been on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia since 2003. Judge Roberts was named at that time as the President s choice to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O Connor.
On Sunday night, a day after Chief Justice Rehnquist s death, Mr. Bush called Judge Roberts to discuss the chief justice position. At 7:15 a.m. yesterday, Judge Roberts was offered the job.
Less than an hour later, the President and his nominee stood before TV cameras as the nomination was announced in the Oval Office. It was the first time a president has renominated an unconfirmed Supreme Court nominee for the court s top job.
Judge Roberts said he was honored and humbled by Mr. Bush s confidence in him. I am very much aware that if I am confirmed, I would succeed a man I deeply respect and admire, a man who has been very kind to me for 25 years, said the judge, who served as a clerk for Chief Justice Rehnquist for a year when he was an associate justice.
Mr. Bush did not say when he would nominate a replacement for Justice O Connor, who had promised in her resignation letter to stay on the court until her successor is confirmed. The fall term starts Oct. 3.
Mr. Bush called Justice O Connor yesterday, surprising her with the news of Judge Robert s nomination for chief justice. The White House did not say what her reaction was, although she stated in July her preference of being replaced by a woman. There is only one woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the court now.
Judge Roberts confirmation hearings, which were to begin today, were postponed while the nation pays tribute to Chief Justice Rehnquist, who served on the nation s highest court for 33 years and as chief justice for 19 years. Rehnquist, 80, who died after battling thyroid cancer for nearly a year, is to lie in repose today and tomorrow in the Great Hall at the Supreme Court, where the public may pay its respects. A private funeral will be conducted tomorrow afternoon at St. Matthew s Cathedral in Washington, although Chief Justice Rehnquist was a Lutheran, not a Roman Catholic. He is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery alongside his wife, who died in 1991 of cancer.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said he and Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will announce today when the hearings will be held but indicated they would start either Thursday or Monday at the latest.
Senator Frist said Judge Roberts will be confirmed in time to take his seat on the court Oct. 3.
The White House is confident of Judge Roberts confirmation; not one Democrat thus far has said he or she would vote against him, although a unanimous confirmation vote is not expected. Because of the power of the chief justice that person sets the court s schedule and decides which justice will write the opinion in each decided case and Judge Roberts conservative views on women s rights, civil rights, and states rights, the hearings are likely to be more contentious than what may have been expected.
Many Democrats sounded more cautious about Judge Roberts yesterday, insisting the hearings should be delayed because the nation s attention is riveted on the Hurricane Katrina aftermath along the Gulf Coast and because they still are seeking documents from Judge Roberts tenure in the solicitor general s office during President George H.W. Bush s administration.
Democrats also want to see whom Mr. Bush nominates for Justice O Connor s post. If he names another staunch conservative who, for example, might be expected to want to overturn Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion, they might put up more of a fight against the Roberts nomination. Many landmark cases in recent years concerning the death penalty, privacy issues, affirmative action, and separation of church and state have been decided by 5-4 votes.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) said in a statement yesterday that the stakes in putting Judge Roberts on the high court now are much higher. Our review of even the limited available parts of his record has raised serious concerns about his role in the early 1980s in seeking to weaken voting rights, roll back women s rights, and impede our progress toward a more equal nation, Mr. Kennedy said.
No new names for the O Connor position emerged yesterday, although several White House aides said Mr. Bush is working from a very short list. When Judge Roberts was nominated in July, the list was thought to have included Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who would be the only Latino on the court, federal appellate Judges Edith Jones and Edith Clement, as well as appellate Judges J. Harvie Wilkinson III, J. Michael Luttig, Emilio Garza, Samuel Alito, and Priscilla Owen, and former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, who is black. Clarence Thomas currently is the only African-American on the court. But the possibility remains that Mr. Bush would name somebody not on that list.
Some senators and law professors speculated yesterday that if Mr. Bush names another white male, there would be a backlash, prompting some to think he ll name a woman or a minority. But they also said that before Mr. Bush picked Judge Roberts.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Mr. Bush s action makes the Roberts confirmation process even more important. Mr. Reid stressed that the job is a lifetime position and that Judge Roberts would be the leader of the third branch of the federal government and the most prominent judge in the nation. The Senate must be vigilant in considering this nomination.
Mr. Bush said that after two months of scrutiny, senators and American citizens have decided they like what they see about Judge Roberts career and character. I am confident that the Senate can complete hearings and confirm him as chief justice within a month, he said.
While his supporters rallied around him, a number of liberal groups expressed consternation.
The Alliance for Justice said that if confirmed as chief justice, he would be the most powerful judge in America for decades to come.
Before he is entrusted with that power, the American people must be assured that he will protect individual rights and freedoms we all cherish.
Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, issued a statement saying his group had opposed Judge Roberts nomination to replace Justice O Connor in large part based on his hostility to the laws and remedies that protect Americans from discrimination and his longtime efforts to restrict the role of the courts in upholding Americans rights and legal protections. To an even greater degree, that record makes him unfit for the position of chief justice.
Contact Ann McFeatters at:email@example.com or 202-662-7071.