Roberts confirmed as 17th United States Chief Justice
Judge John G. Roberts became the 17th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court last week, replacing the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died early last month.
In an expected outcome, the Senate voted to confirm Roberts with Democrats almost evenly divided and Republicans voting overwhelmingly in favor of his confirmation. Twenty-two Democrats, 55 Republicans and the lone Independent voted to confirm him.
In his remarks during the confirmation ceremony, President George W. Bush expressed full confidence in Roberts.
“The Senate has confirmed a man with an astute mind and kind heart…all Americans can be confident that the 17th Chief Justice of the United States will be prudent in exercising judicial power, firm in defending judicial independence, and above all, a faithful guardian of the Constitution,” Bush said.
Although many expect Roberts to be a conservative voice on the court, his lack of openness during the Senate confirmation hearings makes his views on particular issues uncertain.
“He was the least forthcoming witness I’ve ever seen in a confirmation hearing,” said Washington University Professor of Law Margo Schlanger, who formerly clerked for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “I don’t know why he needed to be so unforthcoming. I think that he probably could have gotten through if he had been a bit more candid.”
Schlanger went so far as to speculate that in not answering many of the questions posed to him, Roberts has set a new precedent for future confirmation hearings.
Originally, Roberts was nominated to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who announced her retirement before Rehnquist died. After the former chief justice’s death, however, Bush nominated Roberts to replace Rehnquist, while O’Connor agreed to remain on the court until her own successor is confirmed.
O’Connor is widely considered a key swing vote on the court, while Rehnquist was a steady conservative.
Thus, the replacement of Rehnquist is seen by some as a minor change, although the potential replacement of O’Connor with a more conservative judge could tip the court’s balance in a more significant way.
“John Roberts is probably going to be a Chief Justice who’s very much like former Chief Justice Rehnquist and that means he’s not the one who’s going to cause the changes. That’s just an even swap,” said Schlanger.
“The source of the changes that we’re going to see in the new court is going to be all based on what the president does with Justice O’Connor’s seat.”
Now that the Roberts confirmation is complete, people are turning to Bush’s next nominee to replace O’Connor. No one knows who this appointment will be, although an announcement is expected some time this week.
Both Republicans and Democrats understand that the balance of the court is at stake with this next appointment.
The court’s stand on politically controversial issues such as abortion, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights statutes may change depending on the opinion of O’Connor’s replacement.
Until the nomination is announced, the limelight belongs to Roberts.
At 50, he is the youngest chief justice since John Marshall became chief justice 204 years ago at the age of 45.
It is premature to predict how Roberts’ leadership of the court will take shape but speculation has begun on what policies Roberts will pursue.
Based on statements he made during his confirmation hearing, some think Roberts may increase the number of cases the court hears in a given session, reversing a 15-year trend of having a strictly limited docket.
Roberts was nominated to serve on the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2003, on which he served before being nominated by Bush to the Supreme Court.
Before that, he worked in both private practice as well as for Republican administrations.
Roberts also at one time clerked for his predecessor, Rehnquist.
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