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A New Chief Justice

September 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: More than three quarters of the 100 members already had declared their support for John Roberts by the time the Senate convened today. During four days of floor debate this week, Republicans stood unanimously behind the 50-year-old appeals court judge. George Allen of Virginia:

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN: I’ve been impressed not only by his keen, judicious mind, but also his commitment to the Constitution and understanding the importance of the rule of law and the role of a judge.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mitch McConnell of Kentucky:

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: He will instill in our legal system a new appreciation for the role of judges in our republic.

KWAME HOLMAN: But nearly half the Senate’s 44 Democrats ultimately sided with their leader, Harry Reid.

SEN. HARRY REID: But at the end of the day I have many, many unanswered questions about the nominee, and because of that I can’t justify a vote confirming him to this lifetime position.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Delaware’s Tom Carper said he would support Roberts even though his views on certain subjects are still unclear.

SEN. TOM CARPER: That uncertainty explains at least in part why this vote is so difficult for many members of this body. And so we are asked to make a leap of faith. For some, that leap is large; for others, it is not. For myself, I have decided to take that leap of faith.

KWAME HOLMAN: Michigan’s Carl Levin, one of the Senate’s longest-serving Democrats, said he would vote to confirm as well, citing Roberts’ extraordinary credentials.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: The Senate is being asked to confirm John Roberts to the highest position on the highest court of the land. I believe he is qualified to assume that awesome responsibility. To vote against Judge Roberts I would need to believe either that he was an ideologue whose ideology distorts his judgment and brings into question his fairness and open-mindedness or that his policy values are inconsistent with fundamental principles of American law. I do not believe either to be the case.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mark Dayton of Minnesota, disagreed, announcing he would vote against Roberts because of his ideology.

SEN. MARK DAYTON: I view the current Supreme Court as closely divided between this country’s conservative center and its far right extreme. I fear this nominee and the president’s next nominee will shift the court drastically and destructively toward that far right extreme. That may form the president’s political base, but it does not constitute the country’s citizen base.

KWAME HOLMAN: Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley said Democrats in opposition should remember that President Bush has always maintained that he would nominate conservative judges.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY: And you may not like what he’s doing but he’s doing exactly what he said he was going to do. And I would hope that that would enhance credibility of American people in at least one more politician that keeps his word when he’s in office. He appoints who he says he’s going to appoint. And that’s what he’s doing here. It shouldn’t be any surprise. And that he would be respected for doing that and have leeway in doing that as long as they aren’t political acts or as long as they’re qualified.

KWAME HOLMAN: As they debated the Roberts’ nomination, many senators were aware President Bush is expected to nominate a replacement for the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor, some say as early as tomorrow. New York Democrat Charles Schumer:

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: If the president sends us a nominee who is committed to an agenda of turning back the clock on civil rights, workers’ rights, individual autonomy, or other vital constitutional protections, there will likely be a fight. And, Mr. President, it will be a fight without any winners.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina argued divisive rhetoric has a cost.

SEN. RICHARD BURR: If we aren’t careful, no one will want that job; if we are not careful, the best and the brightest legal minds in this country that would serve on the bench and serve with distinction, regardless of the party they are from, when they get that call, they will say, “Mr. President, I want to pass. I can’t put my family through it. I can’t put myself through it.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Just before noon, Majority Leader Bill Frist called for the vote on the Roberts nomination.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Mr. President, I ask for the yeas and nays.

SPOKESMAN: The question is: Will the Senate advise and consent to the nomination of John G. Roberts, Jr., of Maryland, to be the Chief Justice of the United States? The clerk will call the roll.

KWAME HOLMAN: As is Senate tradition for the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice, members responded to the roll call from their desks.

SPOKESMAN: Mr. Conrad. Mr. Conrad, aye.

KWAME HOLMAN: Twenty-two Democrats and the Senate’s lone independent joined all fifty-five Republicans to approve the nation’s 17th chief justice.

SPOKESMAN: The nomination of John G. Roberts, Jr., of Maryland to be Chief Justice of the United States is confirmed. ( Applause )

KWAME HOLMAN: Three hours later, President Bush brought out John Roberts and his wife, Jane, at the White House for the swearing in ceremony.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: As Judge Roberts prepares to lead the judicial branch of government, 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: 85-year-old Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, the senior member of the court, then administered the oath.

JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: And I that will well and faithfully discharge –

JUDGE JOHN ROBERTS: And I that will well and faithfully discharge –

JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: — the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.

JUDGE JOHN ROBERTS: — the duties of the office on which I’m about to enter.

JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: So help me God.

JUDGE JOHN ROBERTS: So help me God. (Applause)

KWAME HOLMAN: Chief Justice Roberts reflected on the confirmation process.

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: I view the vote this morning as confirmation of what is for me a bedrock principle: That judging is different from politics, and I appreciate the vote very much. The process we have just completed epitomizes the separation of powers that is enshrined in our Constitution.

My nomination was announced some ten weeks ago here in the White House, the home of the executive branch. This morning, further up Pennsylvania Avenue, it was approved in the Capitol, the home of the executive branch. And tomorrow, I will go into the Supreme Court building to join my colleagues, the home of the judicial branch, to undertake my duties. The executive and the legislature have carried out their constitutional responsibilities and ensured the succession of authority and responsibility in the judicial branch.

What Daniel Webster termed “the miracle of our Constitution” is not something that happens every generation. But every generation in its turn must accept the responsibility of supporting and defending the Constitution and bearing true faith and allegiance to it. That is the oath that I just took. I will try to ensure in the discharge of my responsibilities that with the help of my colleagues I can pass on to my children’s generation a charter of self-government as strong and as vibrant as the one that Chief Justice Rehnquist passed on to us. Thank you.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chief Justice Roberts will hear his first case on Monday, when the Supreme Court begins its nine-month term.