Bush Calls Rehnquist's Death a 'Great Loss'

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By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005; 2:34 PM

President Bush said today the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist "represents a great loss" for the Supreme Court and for the nation, and he vowed to choose a "highly qualified" replacement promptly.

In a brief televised speech from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Bush hailed Rehnquist, who died of thyroid cancer Saturday night at the age of 80, for "his deep commitment to the rule of law and his profound devotion to duty." Even as he battled his illness, Rehnquist insisted on completing the Supreme Court's session, Bush recalled.

He said he was "honored and deeply touched" when Rehnquist, walking with the aid of a cane and visibly ailing, came to the Capitol in January to administer the oath of office to the newly reelected president as he began his second term.

Rehnquist "was extremely well-respected for his powerful intellect," Bush said. "He was a man of character and dedication. His departure represents a great loss for the court and for our country."

With the flag flying at half-staff over the White House in honor of Rehnquist, Bush noted that the chief justice's death creates the second opening on the Supreme Court, following the retirement announcement in July of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"There are now two vacancies on the Supreme Court, and it will serve the best interests of the nation to fill those vacancies promptly," Bush said. "I will choose in a timely manner a highly qualified nominee to succeed Chief Justice Rehnquist."

Bush did not mention Senate confirmation hearings scheduled to begin Tuesday on his nomination of federal appeals court judge John G. Roberts Jr. to replace O'Connor, and he left the room without taking any questions from reporters. Even as he spoke, some lawmakers were beginning to discuss whether a delay in Roberts's confirmation might be called for.

On ABC's "This Week" program, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, rejected the idea of a "timeout" in view of the rare double vacancy.

"No, no. I think we have to proceed with the hearings, but we'll have to see. We'll have to see what the president decides to do here," Hatch said. "You know, there are a lot of factors that might enter into -- that could cause a delay, but I don't think so. I think we need to proceed with John Roberts and move right ahead." He said he saw no reason that the hearings could not go ahead "even if the president nominates [Roberts] for chief justice."

But Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Judiciary Committee Democrat appearing on the same program, disagreed.

"No, I think, you know, we can take a few days out to mourn Justice Rehnquist," Schumer said. "He was a towering figure in the judiciary....... Judge Roberts was his law clerk, and Judge Rehnquist was Judge Roberts's mentor."

Schumer added, "I think it makes a good deal of sense for us to take time, catch our breath and take a few days out. I think that's what Senator Frist and Senator Specter are now considering, and I hope they will, because it makes sense." He referred to Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate majority leader, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which is charged with holding confirmation hearings on judicial nominees.

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