President Bush yesterday upgraded his Supreme Court nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. from associate justice to chief justice and called on the Senate to confirm him before the court reconvenes Oct. 3.
“Judge Roberts has earned the nation’s confidence, and I’m pleased to announce that I will nominate him to serve as the 17th chief justice of the Supreme Court,” Mr. Bush said in an Oval Office appearance with the nominee.
Judge Roberts, originally tapped to replace retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is now slated to succeed Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Saturday.
Judge Roberts’ Senate confirmation hearings have been postponed from today until at least Thursday because of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s funeral, set for tomorrow.
“I am honored and humbled by the confidence that the president has shown in me,” Judge Roberts said. “And I’m very much aware that if I am confirmed, I would succeed a man I deeply respect and admire, a man who has been very kind to me for 25 years.”
Judge Roberts, 50, once served as a clerk for Chief Justice Rehnquist and had been looking forward to serving alongside his old boss.
Democrats said the nomination to a higher post justifies a higher level of scrutiny of Judge Roberts’ record. Although more than 60,000 pages of documents have been released, liberals want additional papers that the White House deems privileged.
“John Roberts bears a heavier burden when he comes before the Senate,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Before the Senate acts on John Roberts’ new nomination, we should know even more about his record.”
Spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House already has “provided them with an enormous amount of information to be able to move forward on his nomination.”
After announcing the nomination, Mr. Bush boarded Air Force One to tour the Gulf Coast hurricane damage. En route, he telephoned Justice O’Connor to tell her Judge Roberts no longer would replace her.
Justice O’Connor, who had not seen Mr. Bush’s televised announcement minutes earlier, reaffirmed her willingness to remain on the court until a successor is nominated and confirmed, said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. Mr. Bush is not expected to nominate another justice until Judge Roberts is confirmed.
By tapping Judge Roberts as chief justice, Mr. Bush passed over justices who have been serving on the court for years, including Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. That spares the president from yet another potentially rancorous political battle, because Justice Scalia or Justice Thomas would have had to be confirmed by the Judiciary Committee.
The president always has regarded Judge Roberts as a potential chief justice, White House officials said. The two met in the White House for 30 to 45 minutes late Sunday, with White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. participating in the start of the meeting.
At 7:15 a.m. yesterday, Judge Roberts was summoned to the White House, where the president officially offered the job.
After Judge Roberts accepted and before the 8 a.m. announcement, Mr. Card notified Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican; Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican; Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the panel; and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.
Meanwhile, the White House counsel’s office alerted Justice John Paul Stevens, the senior and most liberal justice, who otherwise would serve as acting chief justice. The confirmation of Judge Roberts would mean that he, not Justice Stevens, will run the court and assign the writing of decisions.
Yesterday, the president praised Judge Roberts’ “natural gifts as a leader.” Mr. Bush also expressed confidence that the judge would be confirmed.
“Twenty-five years ago, John Roberts came to Washington as a clerk to Justice William Rehnquist,” Mr. Bush said. “In his boss, the young law clerk found a role model, a professional mentor and a friend for life.
“I’m certain that Chief Justice Rehnquist was hoping to welcome John Roberts as a colleague, and we’re all sorry that day didn’t come,” he added. “Yet it’s fitting that a great chief justice be followed in office by a person who shared his deep reverence for the Constitution.”
Several liberal groups, who had voiced discontent with the Roberts choice, were further enraged by the elevation yesterday.
“America can’t afford a Supreme Court justice — let alone a chief justice — with Roberts’ record of eroding the rights of workers and turning back the clock on civil rights,” said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action Committee. “There’s no mistaking that he’s a stealth right-wing candidate.”
Conservative-leaning groups also were quick to reiterate their opinion of Judge Roberts and warned against efforts at stalling.
“Opposition to this nomination will be based on nothing but partisan politics, and would be an unfortunate strategy at a time when the Senate ought to be coming together to get things done for the American people,” said Brian McCabe, president of Progress for America Inc.
Guy Taylor contributed to this report.