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Roberts Is Sworn In as Chief Justice

Times Staff Writer

Hours after the Senate confirmed him overwhelmingly, John G. Roberts Jr. took the oath Thursday as the 17th chief justice of the United States.

Now, President Bush must nominate someone to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a selection likely to determine the direction of the Roberts-led Supreme Court. On Monday, the court begins a new term.

The 78-22 confirmation vote for Roberts, the first new appointee to the court in more than a decade, was a triumph for Bush.

Roberts succeeds the judge for whom he once clerked, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Sept. 3. At age 50, Roberts is the youngest chief justice since 45-year-old John Marshall was confirmed in 1801. Justices have lifetime tenure, so Roberts might for decades influence decisions not only on such issues as abortion rights and gay rights but on matters sure to grow in importance, such as the reach of technology into the private lives of Americans.

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Bush’s choice of Roberts -- who combined stellar legal credentials with a modest manner -- divided and disarmed Democrats. Roberts’ conservative legal record pleased Republicans, and his pledge during confirmation hearings to respect legal precedent over ideology helped him win significant Democratic support.

Half of the Senate’s 44 Democrats joined all 55 Republicans and the chamber’s independent, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, to confirm Roberts.

The swearing-in at the White House was a respite for Bush from weeks of criticism of federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush praised Roberts, whom he appointed two years ago to be a federal appellate court judge, as “a man with an astute mind and a kind heart.”

Surrounded by justices, congressional leaders and his family, Roberts offered the simple promise “to do the best job I possibly can do. And I will try to do that every day.”

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He also noted his bipartisan backing: “I view the vote this morning as confirmation of what is, for me, a bedrock principle -- that judging is different from politics. And I appreciate the vote very much.”

Even as Roberts was confirmed, much of Washington’s attention had shifted to whom Bush will choose to succeed O’Connor, who in July announced plans to retire.

Roberts was initially tapped by Bush to succeed O’Connor. The president chose Roberts to be chief justice after the death of Rehnquist, a staunch conservative who had served on the court since 1972 and led it since 1986.

Roberts is unlikely to dramatically alter the court’s political balance, another reason his confirmation went smoothly for the White House. But O’Connor -- poised between the court’s liberal and conservative wings -- had been a swing vote in recent years on several issues, so the choice of her successor is expected to be more contentious.

White House aides have acknowledged that it would not be easy for the next nominee to win such bipartisan support.

Democrats have reminded Republicans that they were willing to filibuster a nominee they consider unsuitable.

“If it’s an ideologue ... there would be a good chance we would move to block the vote on the floor,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday. “The message to the president is we would eagerly embrace a consensus nominee, a nominee who would be mainstream, who ... would not turn the clock back on basic rights.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said: “In the last 10 years, the court has moved dramatically to the right.... I think the president is well advised to take heed of this. The nation is extraordinarily divided and polarized.”

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Feinstein voted against Roberts’ confirmation, as did California’s other senator, Barbara Boxer.

Republicans were bracing for a harsher fight over the next nominee, making a point of praising Democrats’ civility during Roberts’ confirmation process.

“As we move forward to fill the second vacancy on the high court, I urge my colleagues to be mindful of the lessons that we’ve learned from Chief Justice Roberts’ nomination,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Thursday. “By focusing on qualifications and judicial philosophy rather than political ideology, we can continue to preserve the integrity of the judicial nominations process.”

The president commented this week that he was “mindful that diversity is one of the strengths of this country,” which led many to speculate he would choose a woman or a minority to succeed O’Connor.

Names that have been mentioned include Bush’s attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, or his White House counsel, Harriet Miers, either of whom might avoid an all-out battle with Senate Democrats. Gonzales, if confirmed, would be the court’s first Latino member; Miers would keep the court’s number of women at two.

However, some conservative antiabortion groups have said they would be disappointed with such nominations, and they might actively oppose Gonzales, whom they consider less of an abortion opponent than they would like.

For decades, conservatives have complained that the courts, and especially the Supreme Court, have been too activist in reaching decisions favorable to liberal causes.

Shifting the federal judiciary rightward has been a central GOP goal.

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“The president is going to send another conservative up here, and I think the next person will be confirmed,” Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) said Thursday.

But conservative activists’ favorite candidates would probably trigger a major fight in the Senate, and possibly a Democratic filibuster. They include federal Judges J. Michael Luttig of Virginia, Edith H. Jones and Priscilla R. Owen of Texas, and Janice Rogers Brown of California, who recently joined the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.

Owen, who narrowly won Senate confirmation this year, is said to be a favorite of Bush’s chief political advisor, Karl Rove. He managed her first campaign to win election to the Texas Supreme Court.

White House officials have kept quiet about the president’s plans. Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Bush had narrowed the roster of potential O’Connor successors to a short list.

He declined to say whether Bush planned to conduct final interviews. The president is to be at his Camp David retreat this weekend and could hold such sessions then.

Democrats who voted against Roberts on Thursday said they doubted he was committed to civil and reproductive rights. They cited statements he made early in his career as a lawyer in Republican administrations that they considered insensitive to women and minorities.

“At the end of the day, I have too many unanswered questions about the nominee to justify confirming him to this lifetime seat,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

In his Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, Roberts refused to state his opinion on controversies including abortion rights or the 2000 ruling that stopped Florida’s vote recount and sealed Bush’s presidential victory.

Roberts presented himself during testimony as a mainstream conservative, not a right-wing activist eager to roll back liberal decisions of decades past.

He said he was devoted to precedent and stability in the law, even if that meant upholding rulings he might have disagreed with years ago. He said he aspired to be a “modest” judge who followed the law and did not promote a political agenda.

Roberts, who rarely smiled during his confirmation hearings, injected levity into his remarks after he was sworn in as chief justice.

He said that the Senate Judiciary Committee “faced a very special challenge” in dealing with his nomination. “And yet, working together, we met that challenge. We found a way to get Jack into the committee room, introduced to the committee and back out again without any serious crisis.”

“Jack” is one of Roberts’ two young children, a 4-year-old who has been rambunctious during some of his father’s recent public appearances.

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Times staff writers David Savage and Warren Vieth contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How they voted

The Senate voted 78 to 22 to confirm John G. Roberts Jr. as the 17th chief justice of the United States. Among the dissenters -- all of them Democrats -- were California’s two senators. A “yes” vote was to confirm him and a “no” opposed him.

* 22 Democrats Yes

Baucus, Mont.; Bingaman, N.M.; Byrd, W.Va.; Carper, Del.; Conrad, N.D.; Dodd, Conn.; Dorgan, N.D.; Feingold, Wis.; Johnson, S.D.; Kohl, Wis.; Landrieu, La.; Leahy, Vt.; Levin, Mich.; Lieberman, Conn.; Lincoln, Ark.; Murray, Wash.; Nelson, Neb.; Nelson, Fla.; Pryor, Ark.; Rockefeller, W.Va.; Salazar, Colo.; Wyden, Ore.

* 22 Democrats No

Akaka, Hawaii; Bayh, Ind.; Biden, Del.; Boxer, Calif.; Cantwell, Wash.; Clinton, N.Y.; Corzine, N.J.; Dayton, Minn.; Durbin, Ill.; Feinstein, Calif.; Harkin, Iowa; Inouye, Hawaii; Kennedy, Mass.; Kerry, Mass.; Lautenberg, N.J.; Mikulski, Md.; Obama, Ill.; Reed, R.I.; Reid, Nev.; Sarbanes, Md.; Schumer, N.Y.; Stabenow, Mich.

* 55 Republicans Yes

Alexander, Tenn.; Allard, Colo.; Allen, Va.; Bennett, Utah; Bond, Mo.; Brownback, Kan.; Bunning, Ky.; Burns, Mont.; Burr, N.C.; Chafee, R.I.; Chambliss, Ga.; Coburn, Okla.; Cochran, Miss.; Coleman, Minn.; Collins, Maine; Cornyn, Texas; Craig, Idaho; Crapo, Idaho; DeMint, S.C.; DeWine, Ohio; Dole, N.C.; Domenici, N.M.; Ensign, Nev.; Enzi, Wyo.; Frist, Tenn.; Graham, S.C.; Grassley, Iowa; Gregg, N.H.; Hagel, Neb.; Hatch, Utah; Hutchison, Texas; Inhofe, Okla.; Isakson, Ga.; Kyl, Ariz.; Lott, Miss.; Lugar, Ind.; Martinez, Fla.; McCain, Ariz.; McConnell, Ky.; Murkowski, Alaska; Roberts, Kan.; Santorum, Pa.; Sessions, Ala.; Shelby, Ala.; Smith, Ore.; Snowe, Maine; Specter, Pa.; Stevens, Alaska; Sununu, N.H.; Talent, Mo.; Thomas, Wyo.; Thune, S.D.; Vitter, La.; Voinovich, Ohio; Warner, Va.

* Zero Republicans No

* 1 Independent Yes

Jeffords, Vt.

Source: Associated Press

Los Angeles Times

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Chief justice duties

Here are some of John G. Roberts Jr.'s tasks as 17th chief justice of the United States:

- Heads the judicial branch of government and presides over the Supreme Court.

- If voting with the majority, writes the opinion or assigns it to an associate justice.

- Presides over an impeachment of the president.

- Traditionally officiates at the presidential inauguration.

- Assigns himself or other justices to the federal circuits.

- Approves hiring and compensation of various court staffers.

- Heads the Judicial Conference of the U.S., the chief administrative body of the federal courts.

- Serves on boards of the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the Hirshhorn Museum

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Source: U.S. Supreme Court. Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken


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