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Senate confirms John Roberts as chief justice, 78-22; focus turns to next nominee

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly confirmed John Roberts as chief justice of the United States Sept. 29, setting the stage for an expected battle over the next nominee to the Supreme Court.

Senators voted 78-22 to confirm Roberts and he later was sworn in, making him the 17th chief justice in U.S. history. Half of the Senate’s 44 Democrats and an independent joined all 55 Republicans in confirming the federal appeals court judge to the country’s top judicial position. Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court, delivered the oath to Roberts in a White House ceremony.

The high court will hold its first oral arguments in the new term Oct. 3. President Bush nominated Roberts, 50, as chief justice Sept. 5.

Roberts replaces William Rehnquist, who died Sept. 3 after a lengthy battle with thyroid cancer. Rehnquist had been chief justice since 1986.

Roberts possesses “the judicial philosophy, intellect and dedication to be one of the great chief justices in our history,” Southern Baptist public policy specialist Richard Land told Baptist Press after the Senate vote. “Chief Justice Roberts’ sterling performance in his confirmation hearings caused deep division among Democratic senators, many of whom were duly impressed while others felt an obligation to the radical, liberal interest groups who support them to oppose a marvelously qualified and gifted nominee.”

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, commended the Senate for “an orderly and judicious confirmation process. We can all hope that such behavior will become a habit in the future.”

It appears unlikely, however, advocates of abortion rights and other liberal causes will flinch from an all-out assault on Bush’s next nominee. The affirmative vote by 22 Democrats demonstrated how badly such a strategy failed them in seeking to stop Roberts’ confirmation. Outspoken opponents of Roberts turned their attention toward the next nominee when it became clear long before Senate floor action that Bush’s selection for chief justice had the votes for confirmation.

Bush may announce his next nominee, this time for the seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Sept. 30, if not sooner. O’Connor has agreed to remain on the bench while another nominee goes through the confirmation process. If the next nominee is perceived by Democrats as at least as conservative as Roberts, Bush’s announcement is likely to set off a full-scale war of words. Replacing O’Connor, who often voted with liberal justices, with a conservative would mark a shift in the balance of the high court on at least some issues.

“There are those who are promising a bitter battle ahead for the next Supreme Court nominee,” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, said in a written statement. “We expect the president to put forth a nominee who holds the same judicial philosophy exhibited by John Roberts. This is a vital appointment -– one that will determine the outcome of some of the most important political and cultural issues of the day. This is a defining moment for the president and the Senate.”

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, applauded the senators who she said “courageously opposed” Roberts’ nomination. In turning her attention to a replacement for O’Connor, Keenan said in a written release the retiring justice, who voted to uphold legal abortion, “put reason before ideology and played a decisive role in protecting women’s reproductive freedom. The president has an obligation to nominate an individual who reflects O’Connor’s philosophy and has a record of supporting the fundamental freedoms that Americans value.”

Among those who have been mentioned by news reports as possible replacements for O’Connor are: Samuel Alito of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals; Janice Rogers Brown of the D.C. Circuit; Raoul Cantero of the Florida Supreme Court; Alice Batchelder of the Sixth Circuit; Edith Clement of the Fifth Circuit; Maura Corrigan of the Michigan Supreme Court; Miguel Estrada, who withdrew as a nominee to the D.C. Circuit after a filibuster; Emilio Garza of the Fifth Circuit; Alberto Gonzales, U.S. attorney general; Edith Jones of the Fifth Circuit; Michael Luttig of the Fourth Circuit; Michael McConnell of the 10th Circuit; Harriet Miers, White House counsel; Priscilla Owen of the Fifth Circuit; Larry Thompson, a former deputy attorney general and now general counsel of PepsiCo, and J. Harvie Wilkinson and Karen Williams, both of the Fourth Circuit.

Social conservatives have provided widespread support for Roberts, although the former aide in the Reagan and first Bush administrations has not committed himself on the Roe v. Wade opinion legalizing abortion. Pro-life and pro-family advocates appear content to trust his announced judicial philosophy. During the committee’s hearings, Roberts endorsed “judicial restraint and said judges should have a “limited” role.

Among the liberal Democrats who voted to confirm Roberts were Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, Patty Murray of Washington and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Roberts, 50, had served on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals since 2003. He was a clerk for Rehnquist in 1980-81.

Bush nominated Roberts July 19 to replace O’Connor, who retired July 1 after 24 years of service. After Rehnquist’s death, however, the president changed his plans for Roberts, elevating him to the court’s top spot.