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Looking at Roberts' nomination, what's next

'Hardball' host Matthews, NBC's Williams discuss president's decision
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On Monday, President Bush nominated John Roberts to succeed William Rehnquist as chief justice of the Supreme Court.  In light of the nomination change and Justice Rehnquist's death, the Senate has decided to postpone Roberts' confirmation hearings, which were supposed to start on Tuesday, until later this week or early next. 

NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams joined Chris Matthews on Monday to discuss the nomination of Roberts and who else may be added to the Supreme Court.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Pete, normally, this would be the biggest story of the country.  It would be at the top of the front page. 


MATTHEWS:  Sadly and tragically, we have got worse news. 

But it was a quick move.  How do you explain the quick decision-making of the president, in light of all these other stresses right now, to just say, 'OK, this guy Roberts looks pretty good; I will make him chief?'

WILLIAMS:  I think the answer is that this is something the White House had been thinking about all along, that if the chief justice -- they knew he was in declining health -- if he chose to step down over the summer, then they would be ready to go with Roberts. 

This is assuming, of course, that Rehnquist would have made his choice before Roberts was confirmed for associate justice.  But the White House is making no secret about the fact that the president had thought about this.  And if you go back to the initial announcement of when he announced John Roberts to succeed Sandra Day O'Connor, he talked about his leadership skills even then.  So, it is not something that suddenly occurred to them over the weekend. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think they could have finessed it if Rehnquist had hung on there and not died over the weekend and they had gotten the confirmation they wanted, and then he died?  Would they have then turned him around and put him back up again?  Do you think they might have done that?

WILLIAMS:  I don't know.  I mean, that's an excellent question. 

If he had been on the court for two months, three months, would he then suddenly say he wanted to make him chief justice?  I think that's a harder sell to the Senate, but it's certainly not impossible.  It would be very unusual, though. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, question of the day, how did we get into this locution?  Everybody is saying this now.  I wonder where these phrases come from.  To pick the next associate justice now, to replace Sandra Day now, Sandra Day O'Connor, the president has to pick either an Hispanic or a woman.  Who comes up with phrases like that?

WILLIAMS:  I have always suspected you. 


MATTHEWS:  An Hispanic or a woman.  What is this about?  So, obviously, he can pick Gonzales, his attorney general, our attorney general.


MATTHEWS:  Or he can pick one of the women who are pretty conservative women who are on the appellate level. 

WILLIAMS:  Here's my guess.  The woman comes up because he's replacing Sandra Day O'Connor. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

WILLIAMS:  There was great pressure on him the first time around to do that.  He chose not to.  Even O'Connor herself said she liked John Roberts.  She's disappointed he is not a woman. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

WILLIAMS:  So, that is where that comes from. 

As for Hispanic, ever since Bill Clinton was president, Hispanic groups have been saying, you know, now is our turn.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

WILLIAMS:  And this president especially has been sensitive to that constituency.  He is from Texas.  He was popular with Hispanic voters there.  The Republicans have been courting them.  I think that's where-that's where it comes from. 

MATTHEWS:  I have another theory.  He's been tough on the border issue and he doesn't want to be that tough.  This might be a way of softening up that tough approach on the border issue by naming an Hispanic or a Latino to the Supreme Court. 

WILLIAMS:  Well, and, of course, it's a whole different calculus now.  Yes, they can look at the same list of people that they looked at when Sandra Day O'Connor stepped down.  And we know that they will.  We know that they are doing it. 

But having done that once, and having decided to go with John Roberts, who everyone believes is qualified, although he is a white male, it seems to increase the pressure on the president now to go for someone who is not another white male.  At least that's the theory.

The president can do whatever he wants.  And I suppose, politically, he'll have to fight it out no matter what. 

Watch each weeknight at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.