Bush Urges Senators to Focus on Roberts, Not Next Nominee

Times Staff Writer

Senate leaders said Tuesday that the Judiciary Committee would begin hearings Monday on President Bush’s nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice, and the president said he would take his time selecting a candidate from a “wide open” field to fill the Supreme Court’s second vacancy.

At midday, Bush formally sent Roberts’ name to the Senate as his nominee to succeed Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Saturday. Bush withdrew the earlier nomination of Roberts to fill the seat of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is retiring.

“I want the Senate to focus not on who the next nominee is going to be, but the nominee I got up there now,” Bush said. “In the meantime, the country can be assured that I’ll take a good, long look at who should replace Justice O’Connor.”


Democrats urged the president to move quickly to fill the vacancy, saying it would be easier for them to support Roberts’ nomination if they knew the name of the second nominee.

Senators on Tuesday spent their first full day on the job since their summer recess adjusting to a new reality: two Supreme Court vacancies that will need to be addressed against the backdrop of the national emergency caused by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Even though the hearings on Roberts’ nomination will start six days later than first planned because of Rehnquist’s death, Senate leaders were optimistic that a vote on Roberts would take place before the Supreme Court term began Oct. 3.

“Judge Roberts does have the skill, he does have the mind, he does have the intellect and the temperament to lead the Supreme Court for decades to come,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Bush’s decision Monday to nominate Roberts as chief justice forced each party to recalibrate its political compass.

Democrats, worried about the balance of conservatives and liberals on the court, started pressuring Bush to quickly announce a nominee to replace O’Connor. She has been a swing vote between the court’s liberal and conservative wings.

“If we had an idea of who might fill the other vacancy, it would help put [Roberts’ nomination] in perspective,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “This court is very closely divided, and if the president’s next nominee is too extreme, it will worry us that the court is going to change for generations to come.”

Republicans, apparently recognizing that delaying a second nomination might give the president more options, deferred to the White House. Over the weekend, Bush aides suggested the president would choose another nominee quickly. After a Cabinet meeting Tuesday morning, the president suggested a more measured pace.

“I was deliberate in my process last time,” Bush said. “I will be deliberative this time.”

Democrats, who had indicated they were unlikely to try to block Roberts’ confirmation, said the proposal to make him chief justice had raised the stakes.

“At his age, we could see him for 25 or 30 years,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Roberts is 50.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) said it was now more important for the White House to release 16 case files from Roberts’ service in George H.W. Bush’s administration that the current White House had withheld.

Democrats worry that the president could use a second nomination to name a conservative ideologue to placate the Republican Party’s right wing, which privately has expressed doubts that Roberts might not be as reliable a conservative vote as they would like. Democrats express the opposite fear: that Roberts will be rigidly conservative.

“It really falls on us to ask important questions about who he really is, and to require the administration to produce enough evidence about who he is and what he believes that we can make a reasonable judgment,” Durbin said.

There is speculation in both parties that Bush will try to name a woman or a member of an ethnic minority to promote diversity among the justices.

“It is desirable to have balance on the court, and two women, I think, are a minimum,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), committee chairman. “But I don’t think you can have a quota system either for women or a minority as an absolute determinant.”

The court has two women justices -- O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- and one African American, Clarence Thomas.

Bush joked about the guessing game surrounding his decision. “The list is wide open, which should create some good speculation here in Washington,” Bush said after meeting with his Cabinet at the White House. “And make sure you notice when I said that I looked right at Al Gonzales, so we can really create speculation.”

Alberto R. Gonzales, the attorney general and a longtime Bush aide, is viewed as a leading candidate to replace O’Connor.

Senators said the aftermath of Katrina had created an unusual backdrop for the Roberts hearings, but that it was important to move forward after the delay to mourn Rehnquist and the hurricane victims.

“All three branches of government are critical, [even in] those Southeastern states that are suffering so terribly,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a member of the Judiciary panel. “But this is one of the most important responsibilities the Senate has, and we need to exercise that responsibility.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), also a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he did not expect relief efforts to dampen Democrats’ zeal in questioning the nominee.

He said a major concern about Roberts was whether he believed in curtailing federal power.

“If there were ever a strong argument -- a devastating argument in a very real sense -- for strong federal government power, Hurricane Katrina made it,” Schumer said.