Bush names high court nominee

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush named federal appeals Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to fill the first Supreme Court vacancy in a decade, delighting Republicans and unsettling Democrats by picking a young jurist of impeccably conservative credentials.

If confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, the 50-year-old Roberts would succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, long a swing vote on a Court divided over abortion, affirmative action, states’ rights and more.

Those on the right say Roberts, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., is a bright judge with strong conservative credentials who will apply the law, as written, and leave policy decisions to the elected branches of government.

Liberal groups, however, say Roberts has taken positions in cases involving free speech, religious liberty and abortion that, should they carry the weight of law, would endanger those rights.

As a lawyer in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, Roberts unsuccessfully urged the Supreme Court to rule that public schools could sponsor prayer at graduation ceremonies (Lee v. Weisman). Roberts also co-authored briefs backing a law that criminalized flag-burning (U.S. v. Eichman) and arguing that Roe v. Wade should be overturned.

“All these positions were rejected by the Supreme Court,” said Steven Shapiro, the ACLU’s National Legal Director, in a statement yesterday. “But the Supreme Court remains closely divided on many of these questions.”

Meanwhile, Bush today pressured lawmakers to get Roberts in place by the start of the high court’s next term.

Bush offered Roberts the job yesterday in a lunchtime telephone call, then invited him to the White House for a nationally televised evening announcement. Bush said Roberts will “strictly apply the Constitution in laws, not legislate from the bench.”

Roberts said he has argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court in a career as a private attorney and government lawyer. “I always got a lump in my throat whenever I walked up those marble steps to argue a case before the Court, and I don’t think it was just from the nerves,” he said.

“I look forward to the next step in the process before the United States Senate,” he added.

That was a reference to confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, expected to begin in late August or early September. That would allow plenty of time for the Senate to meet Bush’s timetable of a vote before the high court begins its new term Oct. 3.

In making his first nomination to the Court, Bush had an opportunity to expand his conservative agenda and extend it past his presidency. Justices serve until they retire or die. The Court is the third branch of the U.S. government and decides on many contentious social issues that divide Americans.

The Harvard-educated Roberts is a Washington insider who has worked over the years at the White House, Justice Department and in private practice. His professional resume includes a turn as clerk to Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is 80 and battling thyroid cancer but recently affirmed his intention to remain as chief justice as long as his health allows.

It took a while for Roberts to get on the bench. He was nominated for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1992 by the first President Bush and again by the president in 2001. The nominations died in the Senate both times. He was renominated in January 2003 and confirmed in a voice vote.

At the time, his nomination to the appellate court attracted support from both sides of the ideological spectrum. This time, the hearings will be nationally televised, the vote widely watched.

Reaction from Republican senators was strongly supportive. “He is a brilliant constitutional lawyer with unquestioned integrity,” said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Democratic response was measured but offered no hint of a filibuster.

“The president has chosen someone with suitable legal credentials, but that is not the end of our inquiry,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Referring to planned hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Reid said, “I will not prejudge this nomination. I look forward to learning more about Judge Roberts.”

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said Democrats would want to probe Roberts’ views to see whether he holds “mainstream values.”

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