With the nomination of conservative federal Judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court, President Bush has an opportunity to make a lasting impact on a high court that has split between conservative and liberal factions in recent years.
If confirmed by the Senate, Judge Roberts would be only one of nine Supreme Court justices. But with the court divided five to four on many major legal cases in recent years, the addition of another conservative jurist could shift the high court further to the right for years to come.
"It is up to the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution but also to interpret federal statutes [laws], to decide when the United States government has done something wrong, to decide when citizens can sue other citizens," explained Professor Jonathan Turley, an expert on the Supreme Court at George Washington Law School in Washington, D.C. "It is an enormously powerful court and it is the final court. So changing the Supreme Court can very well change the country by changing the face of the law."
In choosing Judge Roberts, President Bush said he has the qualities he wants in a Supreme Court justice including experience, wisdom, fairness and civility.
"He has profound respect for the rule of law and for the liberties guaranteed to every citizen," he said. "He will strictly apply the Constitution in laws, not legislate from the bench."
Judge Roberts has been successful both as a government lawyer and a private attorney, arguing a total of 39 cases before the Supreme Court.
"I always got a lump in my throat whenever I walked up those marble steps to argue a case before the court and I do not think it was just from the nerves," he said.
Republicans and allied conservative activist groups are enthusiastic about the Roberts nomination. They expect he will be confirmed in time to take the place of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor when the next court session begins in October.
"[He has] superb judicial temperament, fine legal judgment. Everyone went to him for the tough issues," said Attorney Michael Carvin, who worked with Judge Roberts as a White House lawyer during the Reagan administration. "On a personal level he is part of the Washington establishment, if you will, and has been a well-respected attorney."
Opposition Democrats and liberal activist groups will be pressing Judge Roberts to answer specific questions during his confirmation hearings, including his views on the divisive issue of abortion.
Judge Roberts once co-wrote a legal brief for the first Bush administration that argued that the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion should be overturned. But years later, in Senate confirmation hearings for his appointment as a federal appeals court judge, Judge Roberts said the decision, known as Roe v. Wade, is the settled law of the land.
Democrats like Illinois Senator Dick Durbin are signaling a tougher approach to Judge Roberts than during his first confirmation hearings in 2003.
"We could not get answers from him," he said. "We asked him the most basic questions. Why did you want to overturn Roe v. Wade? He said, I was just a lawyer speaking for a client. Well, what are your views on Roe v. Wade? Well, I am going to stand by the Supreme Court [decision in 1973 legalizing abortion]."
But abortion is only one of many issues that Judge Roberts can expect to be asked about during the upcoming confirmation process.
George Washington University Professor Jonathan Turley says that process could be divisive because senators from both parties realize the significance of a conservative shift on the Supreme Court.
"What it means for President Bush is that if he was looking for a legacy, he found one," he said. "Because if he changes the court, he changes the country. He could have the greatest effect on American law of any president in our history, as simple as that. So the stakes could not be higher."
Justice O'Connor's retirement is the first Supreme Court vacancy since 1994. Retirement rumors have also swirled around Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is battling thyroid cancer. But he recently issued a statement saying he will remain on the court as long as his health permits.