KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE, JULY 27 -- President Bush today refused comment on remarks by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall that were critical of him and his new court nominee David H. Souter, but said he was "very pleased" by initial reaction to the nomination and predicted Souter would win confirmation "with flying colors."
Meanwhile in Washington, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said Souter's confirmation hearings will begin Sept. 13.
"I have no comment at all on it -- none," Bush said aboard Air Force One when asked about Marshall. He added, "I have a very high regard for the separation of powers and for the Supreme Court and the people can get along without a comment from me on this interview."
In an interview on the ABC's "Prime Time Live" Thursday night, Marshall said he considered Bush "dead," with White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu "calling the shots" at the White House. Marshall belittled Souter, a federal appeals court judge, as an unknown figure and said that when he learned of the nomination, he called his wife and asked, "Have I ever heard of him?"
Bush's remarks came en route to his summer vacation home here in Maine, where he plans to attend the wedding of a cousin on Saturday. Souter and his chief Senate sponsor, Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), accompanied Bush on the flight from Washington to Pease Air Force Base, N.H.
While Bush tried to avoid the controversy over Marshall's comments, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said they "saddened" him, adding that he believed it was "the first time any Supreme Court justice has ever criticized in our history an appointment and, indeed, the president who made the appointment."
Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) went further, lashing out at the 82-year-old Marshall, the first black to serve on the court, for what he said were "cheap shots" and "partisan and demeaning political statements" about Bush and Souter.
Bush acknowledged that Souter was "not the most well known figure in the country, but that's not why I selected him." Once the Senate hearings are over, he predicted, the federal appeals court judge will be "plenty well known."
Souter, who was returning to his home in Weir, N.H., for the weekend, briefly came to the back of the president's plane to greet reporters, and, smiling broadly, said he had "one word, maybe two" to say: "Hello and goodbye."
Bush said that on the basis of conversations with Rudman and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, he expected no significant opposition to Souter's nomination.
"I've been very pleased with the initial response, and the second wave, I think, is very positive." As Souter's friends speak out in his behalf, Bush said, the former New Hampshire Supreme Court justice appears to be developing "broad support."
The hearings will begin three days after the Senate is scheduled to return from its month-long August recess. Biden and Thurmond indicated that the panel's inquiry will take more than one day but did not say when the committee expects to vote on the nomination.
When he named Souter last Monday, Bush urged the Senate to confirm him before the Supreme Court resumes work in October, and Biden said he believed the Senate could act in "plenty of time."
Rudman said that once Souter has an opportunity to answer questions from members of the committee, "The country and the legal community are in for a real treat."
It's "absurd," he said, for critics like Marshall to charge that Souter has no record to examine. "He has a paper trail that is a mile long and a mile deep," he said. The fact that Souter has not dealt with issues "on people's minds," is not his fault.
Vice President Quayle chastised "single-issue special interest groups" for trying to discern where Souter stands on individual issues such as abortion. "I am hopeful that my former colleagues will evaluate Judge Souter on the merits and avoid a rancorous partisan debate," he told a conference of young Republicans.
Bush said Souter had sought no pre-conditions before coming to Washington to be interviewed for the court vacancy created by the retirement of Justice William J. Brennan Jr. But Rudman said Souter had expressed his concern that administration officials might ask him how he would rule on prospective cases.
Souter, Rudman said, asked whether he should call White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, but instead Rudman volunteered to call Sununu, who assured the New Hampshire senator that the administration had no intention of doing so.
The outspoken Rudman also belittled the idea that abortion was a crucial issue in the confirmation hearings. "The country is going to rise or fall in the next 50 years on a number of . . .issues," he said. "Abortion is not one of them."
Staff writers Ann Devroy and Helen Dewar in Washington contributed to this story.