President Bush has nominated federal Judge John Roberts to succeed Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who died on Saturday, September 3. Judge Roberts had been nominated to replace retiring Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and the president says he will nominate another replacement for her shortly.
Faced now with two Supreme Court vacancies, the president moved quickly to propose that Judge Roberts take the post of chief justice, a position held by the late William Rehnquist for the past 19 years.
"It is in the interests of the court and the country to have a chief justice on the bench on the first full day of the fall term," Mr. Bush says.
Judge Roberts once served as a law clerk for William Rehnquist before Mr. Rehnquist became chief justice. Judge Roberts was with President Bush when the nomination announcement was made at the White House.
"I am honored and humbled by the confidence that the president has shown in me, and I am very much aware that, if I am confirmed, I would succeed a man that I deeply respect and admire," Judge Roberts says.
Judge Roberts had been nominated to take the place of retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and has been preparing for his Senate confirmation hearings. Now that he has been nominated to fill the higher post instead, Justice O'Connor may have to stay on the court for a while, until the president nominates a successor for her. That person must also be confirmed by a majority of the Senate.
The last time there were two vacancies on the Supreme Court was in 1971, and President Richard Nixon used one of them to appoint William Rehnquist. The last vacancy on the court occurred 11 years ago when President Bill Clinton appointed Justice Stephen Breyer.
President Bush now has an opportunity to shape the direction of the high court for years to come.
Conservative activists are strongly backing the Roberts nomination and want the president to nominate another strong conservative for the second court vacancy.
The Reverend Patrick Mahoney is with a conservative Christian group, called Operation Rescue that opposes abortion. "History is unfolding before us and this court will change, literally, overnight," Mr. Mahoney says.
Many liberal groups have already signaled their opposition to Judge Roberts, and are now preparing for a second confirmation battle, as well.
Some opposition Democrats in the Senate say they believe the political stakes for the Roberts nomination are now higher, given that the president has nominated him for the position of chief justice.
In fact, the chief justice has no more power than the other eight justices on the Supreme Court. They each have one vote in any given case. But when the chief justice is in the majority, he or she has the power to choose which justice will write the majority opinion in hopes of setting a strong legal precedent.
Many legal and political analysts predict that the Democrats will have a difficult time trying to prevent Senate confirmation of Judge Roberts, because there has been little debate over whether he is legally qualified for the high court.
Mary Cheh is a law professor at George Washington University. "He has established himself really as a first-rate lawyer," she says. "He has argued cases before the Supreme Court. He has held some of the highest positions as a lawyer in the government. I mean, he is just an intellectual powerhouse. So, we do know that about him, and there is no question about his academic or legal credentials."
But some analysts do foresee the potential for a major battle over the second court vacancy, depending on whom the president selects.
Mark Tushnet is an expert on the Supreme Court and a professor at Georgetown University Law School. On VOA's Talk To America program, he pointed to opinion polls that suggest growing public dissatisfaction with the president's handling of the war in Iraq, rising fuel prices at home and the relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"Judge Roberts is not significantly more conservative than Chief Justice Rehnquist, but he is 30 years younger, and so will be around for a long time to articulate that vision," Mr. Tushnet says. "We do not know now who the replacement for Justice O'Connor will be. We can expect that the president is going to want to seek a relatively conservative nominee. But the president's political circumstances may be such that he has to be more moderate in his choices."
Out of respect for the late Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Senate has agreed to delay the beginning of Judge Roberts' confirmation hearings until after the Rehnquist funeral on Wednesday.