WASHINGTON—With a quick nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice, President Bush on Monday made Roberts' confirmation hearings even more important and opened a new debate over who should fill the other vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Bush took just a day after the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist to decide he wanted to shift course and nominate Roberts to the top job instead of the seat of Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who's retiring.
He will search now for a replacement for O'Connor, facing political pressure to nominate a woman to keep the lopsided gender balance of the court at its current seven men and two women.
Rehnquist's body will lie in repose in the Supreme Court on Tuesday and Wednesday. He will be buried Wednesday.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which was scheduled to start its hearings Tuesday on the nomination of Roberts to the O'Connor seat, said it would delay the hearings until later this week or next week.
Bush lauded Roberts as a man of integrity and fairness as they appeared side by side at the White House. Bush said Roberts could win confirmation easily and quickly enough to preside over the opening of the new court term in October.
"It is in the interest of the Court and the country to have a chief justice on the bench on the first full day of the fall term," Bush said. "The Senate is well along in the process of considering Judge Roberts' qualifications. They know his record and his fidelity to the law. I'm confident that the Senate can complete hearings and confirm him as chief justice within a month."
Roberts said he was "honored and humbled" to be nominated to succeed Rehnquist, for whom he once worked as a law clerk.
Democrats urged a delay and greater scrutiny of Roberts. They already had planned to question him aggressively on civil rights and other issues.
"Before the Senate acts on John Roberts' new nomination, we should know even more about his record," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a member of the Judiciary Committee.
One liberal interest group opposed to Roberts, People for the American Way, said Sunday in a statement that the suffering of victims of Hurricane Katrina highlighted the importance of rights protection.
"The events of the past week have only underscored that we need Supreme Court justices who value the role of the courts in protecting individuals' rights and freedoms, who understand the nature of discrimination and its continuing impact on our country, and who will uphold the role of the federal government in preserving those rights and acting to protect the common good," the group said. "John Roberts' record makes it emphatically clear that he does not meet this standard."
Bush said he would nominate a successor for O'Connor in "a timely manner."
The White House expects the Supreme Court to open its fall term next month with a full nine justices, including Roberts and O'Connor, press secretary Scott McClellan said.
O'Connor said when she announced her retirement that she would remain on the court until her successor was nominated and confirmed. She decided to retire in large part to spend more time with her ailing husband.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said "it's highly likely" that Bush will appoint a woman or a Hispanic to fill the O'Connor vacancy.
Several women are possible nominees, including:
_Appeals Court Judge Edith Clement of New Orleans, who was approved for her appeals court job in 2001 by a vote of 99-0. With a relatively brief time on the court, she does not have a long record of legal opinions.
_Judge Edith Jones of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. She was on a list of potential nominees for the elder President Bush in 1990, when he ended up nominating David Souter. She is one of the federal judiciary's most outspoken critics of Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion. In a 2004 opinion, she went out of her way to call on the high court to reconsider the case and overturn it.
_Judge Priscilla Owen, also from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, was initially blocked by Democrats, but then confirmed as part of the deal brokered to settle Senate disputes over controversial judges.
_Judge Janice Rogers Brown, also once blocked by Democrats, was approved this summer for a slot on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Among the possible Hispanic nominees:
_Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is close to Bush.
_Judge Emilio Garza of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, who was considered by the elder Bush for the seat that went to Clarence Thomas.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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