WASHINGTON – Turning to a man who knew Chief Justice William Rehnquist as “Boss” when he clerked for him 25 years ago, President Bush nominated John G. Roberts Jr. as the nation’s 17th chief justice early Monday and urged the Senate to quickly confirm him.

Less than 36 hours after learning of Rehnquist’s death, Bush asked Roberts to take the center seat on the court, instead of the seat held by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. With Roberts in the Oval Office, Bush said his nominee had “earned the nation’s confidence” in the two months since he was nominated to replace O’Connor and would serve the country with distinction.

“It’s fitting that a great chief justice be followed in office by a person who shared his deep reverence for the Constitution, his profound respect for the Supreme Court, and his complete devotion to the cause of justice,” Bush said.

The surprise announcement came the day before the Senate Judiciary Committee was to have started hearings on Roberts’ nomination to replace O’Connor’s. His hearings now will be delayed at least until after Rehnquist’s body lies in repose at the court on Tuesday, followed by his funeral Wednesday.

Democrats said they would demand more information about Roberts’ views because he was now being considered for chief justice.

“This nomination certainly raises the stakes in making sure that the American people and the Senate know Judge Roberts’ views fully before he assumes perhaps the second most powerful position in the Unites States,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a Judiciary Committee member who is an outspoken critic of Roberts.

But Bush said the Senate was “well along in the process” of considering Roberts’ views and should have little trouble confirming him as chief justice before the court begins its term in October.

“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.

Bush made the announcement moments before heading back to the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast. Aboard Air Force One, he called O’Connor, and she told him she would stay on the court until her successor has been confirmed.

As chief justice, Roberts would lead a court that has been deeply divided on a host of contentious social issues. His vote would count no more than if he were serving as an associate justice, but the title brings great power. He would preside over the court’s public and private proceedings and lead discussions in the court’s private conferences about how to resolve pending cases and when to take on new ones. He would assign opinions when he was in the majority and would administer the entire federal judiciary.

Roberts met with Bush late Sunday afternoon in the Oval Office for more than a half-hour. White House Chief of Staff Andew Card joined them for the early part of the meeting, before Bush and Roberts met privately.

Bush had been thinking about nominating the 50-year-old Roberts as chief justice for some time, a spokesman said, and top administration officials had interviewed him earlier in the summer when they had expected Rehnquist to retire at the end of June.

Roberts said in the Oval Office he was “honored and humbled” by Bush’s confidence in him.

“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,” Roberts said.

In tapping Roberts, Bush takes a well-worn historical path of going outside the Supreme Court to name the chief justice: Rehnquist was one of only five associate justices to be elevated to chief.

But Roberts is not an outsider to the justices. He has argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court.

While the nomination could ensure a smooth start to the court’s term, it also could complicate the White House’s efforts to name a conservative replacement for O’Connor.

Conservatives have looked to Bush to change the direction of the Supreme Court, which they see as adrift, unprincipled and left-leaning on key social issues, and he has said he would name justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, two strong conservatives.

Bush kept his word with Roberts, whose records indicates that he would be a more conservative jurist than O’Connor.

Roberts was the nominee that liberal interest groups had said would be most difficult to oppose, because he had no recent paper trail outlining his views and had not served long on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He was a highly regarded, well-known Washington lawyer with friends on both sides of the political spectrum supporting his nomination.

His confirmation was all but certain.

Now, Roberts would replace the conservative chief, leaving the White House looking for another conservative to replace O’Connor who could shape the direction of the court – yet still be confirmed by the Senate.

Several conservative lawyers who have been involved in the process said Monday they feared the White House would be hard-pressed to identify such a nominee, particularly since Bush is under pressure to nominate a woman or minority to take her place.

Possibilities

Judge Priscilla Owen, who was recently confirmed to the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, emerged as a leading contender and is supported by conservatives. But Democrats would oppose her: They filibustered her nomination to the appeals court for two years, relenting only after a group of senators reached a compromise to avert a showdown over changing Senate rules. Opponents used language from an opinion in an abortion case by then-Texas Supreme Court Justice Alberto Gonzales to insist she was an extremist.

Gonzales, now the attorney general, had parted ways with Owen in the case and voted to strike down the abortion regulation. Now, he also is a leading contender for O’Connor’s seat, and would be the first Hispanic on the court. But his nomination would anger the conservative base, because they think it would simply preserve the status quo on the court.

Moreover, with O’Connor back on the bench, her very presence will be a sharp reminder to senators of what’s at stake with her nomination.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday he expected to consult with Bush on the O’Connor seat, as he and other Senate leaders did before Roberts was nominated. He renewed calls for the White House to nominate someone who shared her views.

“Justice O’Connor has been a voice of moderation and reason on the court, and should be replaced by someone who, like her, embodies the fundamental American values of fairness, liberty and equality,” Reid said.



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