WASHINGTON — The Senate will begin confirmation hearings next Monday for John Roberts to be Supreme Court chief justice, one week after President Bush selected him to replace the late William H. Rehnquist as the 17th leader of the nation’s highest court.
Bush urged senators to confirm Roberts before the court session resumes Oct. 3 and said he was considering many candidates for filling a second vacancy. "The list is wide open," Bush said in the Cabinet Room where he met with advisers about Hurricane Katrina.
Senate leaders made the announcement Tuesday as Rehnquist’s body lay in repose across the street at the Supreme Court. Roberts, a former Rehnquist clerk, helped carry the flag-draped casket into the building for public viewing.
Roberts was supposed to begin his confirmation as the replacement for the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor on Tuesday, but the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was canceled after Rehnquist’s death and Bush’s decision to elevate the 50-year-old Roberts to the top spot.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said senators on the panel would begin their opening statements at noon on Monday. Roberts would be likely to make his opening statement late that afternoon after being introduced by Indiana Sens. Richard Lugar and Evan Bayh, and Virginia Sen. John Warner.
Roberts is likely to begin facing questions from senators starting on Tuesday.
“It is our expectation that we will be able to complete the hearings that week,” Specter said.
Republicans want vote by Oct. 3
With the hearings pushed back a week, Democrats now are refusing to guarantee when the full Senate will give Roberts a final vote. As for the opening of the hearings, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, “We all agree that Monday should be the day.”
Even with the delay, Republicans say they will conclude Roberts’ confirmation before Oct. 3, the start of the new Supreme Court session.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he expects the committee to finish its vote on Sept. 22, and he plans to bring the nomination to the Senate floor on Monday, Sept. 26 and finish before that Friday.
“Roberts has the skill, the mind, the intellect and the temperament to lead the Supreme Court for decades to come,” Frist said. “The Senate will complete floor action on his nomination before the session begins.”
Specter said he may call for an early committee vote on Roberts, possibly on Sept. 20.
Republicans say quick movement is possible because Roberts is the same judge who seemed to be headed for confirmation as an associate justice before Rehnquist died Saturday.
“We must also remember that with two vacancies, it is more important than ever to put partisanship aside and ensure the court is at full strength as soon as possible,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Judiciary Committee that will hold confirmation hearings on the nominee.
Democrats, however, said bumping Roberts up to chief justice instead of having him replace O’Connor means tougher scrutiny of Rehnquist’s former Supreme Court clerk.
“Substantive questions will be asked,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the committee. “I would hope all senators, Republicans and Democrats, would ask very substantive questions because this is, after all, a lifetime position.”
No Democratic senator has yet publicly opposed Roberts’ nomination to the Supreme Court, with several praising the federal appeals court judge when he was set to be O’Connor’s replacement. Assuming no more than a handful of Republicans would fail to vote for Roberts, the only way Democrats might stop Roberts’ confirmation would be through a politically bruising filibuster fight.
Pressure to pick woman, minority
After turning twice to Roberts, Bush faces increasing pressure to name a woman or a minority, and to replace O’Connor’s swing vote with a more reliable conservative.
The president said he knew that saying the list was "wide open" would create speculation about whom he would choose, and he glanced playfully at Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has been often mentioned as a possible nominee. If named, Gonzales would become the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court.
Specter said he would like the president to name a woman.
"It is desirable to have a balance on the court. And two women, I think, are a minimum," Specter said. "My preference would be to see that kind of diversity maintained, but I don't believe anybody ought to tie the president's hands."
Liberal groups are trying to drum up support to fight Roberts’ ascension to chief justice anyway, after working weeks trying to get senators to oppose him as an associate justice.
“We must oppose his confirmation as chief justice even more strenuously because, in that post, he would have even greater power to shape the direction of our courts, our laws and our lives,” said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.
Like Rehnquist, Roberts is deeply conservative. O’Connor had angered conservatives with her tie-breaking votes on contentious issues like abortion restrictions, campaign finance limits, discrimination laws and religion.
The Roberts-for-Rehnquist nomination would not affect the court’s balance, but Bush could force an ideological shift to the right when he replaces O’Connor. O’Connor has offered to remain on the bench until her successor is named, and Bush called her Monday to say he would move quickly to find her replacement as well.
He is not expected to name a new O’Connor successor this week. Possible replacements include Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and federal courts of appeals judges Edith Clement, Edith Hollan Jones and Emilio Garza. Others mentioned are J. Michael Luttig, Samuel A. Alito Jr., James Harvie Wilkinson III, former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, lawyer Miguel Estrada and former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson.
Bush met with Roberts in the private residence of the White House for about 35 to 40 minutes on Sunday evening, then officially offered him the job at 7:15 a.m. Monday when Roberts arrived at the Oval Office.
The president later praised Roberts as a man of fairness and integrity, a natural leader. He said the Senate was well along in the process of considering Roberts’ qualifications and “they know his record and his fidelity to the law. I am confident that the Senate can complete hearings and confirm him as chief justice within a month.”
In brief remarks, Roberts said he was “honored and humbled at the confidence that the president has shown in me. And 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.”
Roberts could be a conservative legal force for decades, as was Rehnquist, who served 33 years on the court, 19 of them as its leader.
There are striking similarities between the two men. Both were first in their class in law school, enjoyed reputations for brilliance and were known as good writers. As a young man, Roberts clerked for Rehnquist and the justice was one of many influences in Roberts’ life and legal career.
Getting a new chief justice of Bush’s choosing in place quickly avoids the scenario of having liberal Justice John Paul Stevens presiding over court sessions, leading private meetings of the justices and thereby influencing court deliberations. As the court’s senior justice, Stevens would take over Rehnquist’s administrative duties until a new chief is confirmed.
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