Bush Nominates Roberts as Chief Justice

President Bush Nominates John Roberts for Chief Justice
President George W. Bush announces that he's elevating Judge John Roberts to be his nominee to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on Monday. (Jonathan Ernst - Reuters)

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 6, 2005

President Bush nominated John G. Roberts Jr. yesterday as the 17th chief justice of the United States, promoting his nominee for associate justice to lead the Supreme Court and the rest of the federal judiciary even before Roberts was confirmed for the first assignment.

Moving swiftly as he copes with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Bush announced his decision just two days after the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and 48 days after picking Roberts to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. In elevating Roberts, Bush chose the candidate most likely to be confirmed in short order by the Senate, which was poised to ratify the appeals court judge for O'Connor's seat.

The move could ensure Bush's influence on the judiciary long after his presidency ends. In the past half-century, only two other presidents have had the opportunity to name a chief justice to a lifetime appointment. A former Rehnquist clerk, Roberts shares a philosophical outlook with the man he would succeed and, at age 50, would be the youngest chief justice since John Marshall was appointed in 1801, potentially giving him decades to shape the court's direction.

Since O'Connor agreed to remain until her successor is confirmed, the move means that the court could open its next term on Oct. 3 with nine justices sitting. But in shifting Roberts to the center chair, Bush now must find someone else to replace O'Connor, in some ways an even more consequential choice because she cast the swing vote on issues such as affirmative action, abortion and the death penalty for many years.

"It is in the interest of the court and the country to have a chief justice on the bench on the first full day of the fall term," Bush said in the Oval Office before flying to the Gulf Coast for a second time to inspect relief efforts. "The Senate is well along in the process of considering Judge Roberts's qualifications. They know his record and his fidelity to the law. I'm confident that the Senate can complete hearings and confirm him as chief justice within a month."

Roberts, who appeared alone at Bush's side, seemed mindful that he would replace his mentor rather than join him on the court. "I am honored and humbled by the confidence that the president has shown in me," he said. "And I'm 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."

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which had been scheduled to open hearings on Roberts's confirmation to O'Connor's seat today, decided yesterday to postpone the process probably until Monday in deference to Rehnquist, who will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery tomorrow.

The same liberal groups that opposed Roberts for associate justice declared him even more unfit for chief. "His views are very much out of sync with civil rights, women's rights, privacy," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice. "Certainly reviewing so many of those memos and briefs and papers he authored makes one wonder whether he understands how the law affects ordinary people."

Several Senate Democrats argued that Roberts should receive greater scrutiny for chief justice. "The stakes are higher and the Senate's advice and consent responsibility is even more important," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), adding that "the Senate must be vigilant in considering this nomination."

But there was no indication that his nomination faces any significant threat. "He will be an excellent chief," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). "I still expect Judge Roberts to be confirmed before the Supreme Court starts its new term on October 3."

Bush always had Roberts in mind for the next chief justice, aides said yesterday. Roberts was first secretly interviewed for a Supreme Court slot in April in anticipation that the cancer-stricken Rehnquist would retire or die. When O'Connor surprised the White House by announcing her retirement in July and Rehnquist declared that he was not stepping down, Bush decided to appoint Roberts to O'Connor's seat.

Even then, aides said yesterday that the president intended to elevate Roberts to chief justice whenever the job came open. "This had been something in the back of the president's mind in case such a scenario came into being, if the chief justice had retired," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. "The president, when he met with [Roberts], knew he was a natural-born leader."


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