Roberts sails toward confirmation

/ Source: NBC News and news services

Supreme Court nominee John Roberts may be on his way to easy Senate confirmation as the next chief justice, yet senators are focusing just as much — if not more — on President Bush’s next nominee for the nation’s top court.

Roberts’ confirmation as the 17th chief justice of the United States and the successor to the late William H. Rehnquist is preordained, with more than two-thirds of the 100-member Senate already indicating plans to vote for him.

But once he is confirmed later this week, the White House is expected to nominate someone to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, one of two women on the high court. NBC's Pete Williams reported the nomination could happen as early as Friday.

Bush said Monday he’ll “pick a person who can do the job. But I am mindful that diversity is one of the strengths of the country.”

Pressure to pick a woman or minority
The president is under pressure from many quarters — including his wife — to pick a woman or a minority. Democrats are trying to use floor speeches to pressure him into picking a mainstream conservative instead of a hard-line conservative.

“I encourage President Bush to nominate someone for Justice O’Connor’s seat who will further unite the citizens of our great nation, rather than drive a political wedge between them,” said Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

Senate floor debate on the Roberts nomination began Monday and resumed Tuesday.

Johnson is one of 13 Democrats on record as supporting Roberts. All 55 GOP senators are expected to vote for him.

Roberts’ would-be colleagues support him, too, said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa. “The word is that the justices very much applaud his nomination to be chief justice,” Specter said.

Bush is expected to announce his next Supreme Court pick after Roberts is confirmed Wednesday or Thursday.

Widely mentioned candidates include federal appellate judges Janice Rogers Brown, Edith Brown Clement, Edith Hollan Jones, Emilio Garza, Alice Batchelder, Karen Williams, J. Michael Luttig, J. Harvie Wilkinson, Michael McConnell and Samuel Alito. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson, lawyer Miguel Estrada and Maura Corrigan, a member of the Michigan Supreme Court, are also considered possibilities.

Democrats urge unity
Roberts’ Democratic supporters warned the White House not to take their support for granted on the next nominee, especially if Bush chooses a hard-right conservative.

“We’re asking him in this case especially: Be a uniter. Don’t be a divider, for the sake of the country,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

Democrats opposing Roberts say they’re afraid the former lawyer in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations will be staunchly conservative like Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.

They questioned Roberts’ commitment to civil rights and expressed concern that he might overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade court ruling that established a right to abortion. “I have too many doubts about his commitment to nondiscrimination, the right of privacy and equal protection under the law,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.

Republicans insisted Roberts has not indicated how he will vote on any issue, including abortion. “Judge Roberts is not predisposed to overturning the settled precedent represented by Roe,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.