WASHINGTON – Taking his place among celebrated historic figures such as John Jay, John Marshall and his mentor, William Rehnquist, John G. Roberts Jr. became the 17th chief justice of the United States on Thursday, after Senate confirmation and a swearing-in ceremony at the White House.

Roberts’ ascension to head of the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary marked a “very meaningful event in the life of our nation,” President Bush said, praising the new chief’s “astute mind” and “kind heart.”

“As Roberts prepares to lead the judicial branch of government, all Americans can be confident that the 17th chief justice of the United States will be prudent in exercising judicial power, firm in defending judicial independence and above all a faithful guardian of the Constitution,” Bush said.

Roberts won Senate approval 78-22, with all the “no” votes coming from Democrats. Notably, all the Democrats who are said to be mulling presidential bids in 2008 – Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Joseph Biden of Delaware, Evan Bayh of Indiana and John Kerry of Massachusetts – voted against him.

Roberts’ vote total was lower than those of many other justices, including Clinton appointees Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Republican appointees David Souter, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia. But he exceeded the marks hit by Clarence Thomas, who garnered only 52 approving votes, and Rehnquist, who got only 65 when he was elevated to chief justice in 1986.

Roberts, ever humble and restrained, thanked Bush for the nomination, promising to repay him by doing “the best job I can possibly do.”

Demonstrating the same affinity for the Constitution he showed during his hearings, Roberts remarked how well the confirmation process had worked.

“The process we have just completed epitomizes the separation of powers that is enshrined in our Constitution,” Roberts said. “My nomination was announced some 10 weeks ago here in the White House, the home of the executive branch. This morning, further up Pennsylvania Avenue, it was approved in the Capitol,” home of the legislative branch. “And tomorrow, I will go into the Supreme Court building to join my colleagues, the home of the judicial branch, to undertake my duties.”

Attention now turns to other matters, both for Roberts and the president and Senate.

Roberts has only two working days to prepare for the opening of the court’s nine-month term, set to kick off Monday. Bush and the Senate soon will address a second court vacancy. The president is said to have narrowed his choices to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to a half-dozen or so, and could announce his pick at any time.

Declining approval

Bush’s search is made more difficult by a declining public approval rating of his presidency and emerging ethics issues involving top congressional Republicans.

Just this week, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas had to step down as Republican leader of the House of Representatives after he was indicted in his home state on charges involving political money laundering. Days earlier, the Securities and Exchange Commission and federal prosecutors initiated an investigation into Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s sale of stock in a hospital chain that his family founded.

The swirl of bad news for Republicans has emboldened some Democrats to make it harder for Bush to name a court nominee whom they deem too conservative.

“This is the time for a consensus nominee,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who was one of the 22 Democrats who voted against Roberts on the Senate floor and among the five members of the Judiciary Committee who disapproved of his nomination. “Democrats are not lined up as a unit to block every nominee,” he said, but if Bush nominates someone “out of the mainstream, we will have no choice.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of a bipartisan group of 14 senators who forestalled filibusters of federal judges in May, said Bush shouldn’t let the current Republican troubles affect his nomination.

“Tune it all out,” he said. “A doesn’t have anything to do with B. If your goal is to unite the country … pick someone like Roberts who will go down well with history.”

Roberts drew fire from some interest groups and senators, who chafed at his stance on women’s issues and civil rights. His hearings were testy at times, but never reached the level of impasse that has come to mark some judicial confirmations.

“There’s a very decisive bipartisan flavor to this vote,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa. “Roberts got half of the Democrats, and Senator (James) Jeffords,” a Vermont independent who typically votes with Democrats. “To come away with 78 votes, considering where the Senate was – in such contentious straits earlier this year – I think, is really remarkable.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.