President Bush is leading the nation in mourning the passing of the chief justice of the United States, William Rehnquist. Justice Rehnquist died late Saturday at his Washington-area home after a battle with cancer.
The president said he will move quickly to select a new chief justice. "There are now two vacancies on the Supreme Court, and it will serve the best interest of the nation to fill those vacancies promptly," he said.
Just two months after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her plans to retire, the death of William Rehnquist left President Bush with another opportunity to leave his mark on the court.
For now, the president's focus is on remembering and honoring the man who led the court for the last 19 years. "As we look to the future of the Supreme Court, citizens of this nation can also look with pride and appreciation on the career of our late chief justice," he said.
During his tenure, William Rehnquist gradually led the court in a more conservative direction. But he will probably be best remembered as the chief justice who presided over the 1999 Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton, and oversaw the court ruling that, in effect, determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.
Senator Charles Schumer of New York is one of the top Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said he was impressed by the chief justice's demeanor even in the most difficult, politically charged situations.
Speaking on ABC's This Week program, he said "everyone agrees that Justice Rehnquist conducted himself with dignity, honor and distinction. And I think the whole nation mourns him."
Appearing on the same television program, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, said there were those on the left of the political spectrum and even some on the right who sometimes disagreed with William Rehnquist. But he said even his detractors agreed the late chief justice was a man blessed with a tremendous intellect, who wore his leadership role well. "You know, I had such a respect for him, personal respect and friendship with him. What a good man," he said.
It is rare for a president to face two vacancies on the Supreme Court at the same time. Senate hearings are expected to begin this week for Mr. Bush's nominee to replace Justice O'Connor, Judge John Roberts. Those hearings could now be postponed for a few days because of the passing of the chief justice.