WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush nominated conservative appeals court judge John Roberts on Monday to replace the late William Rehnquist as Supreme Court chief justice, the top judicial position in the United States.
U.S. Senate leaders agreed to delay the start of confirmation hearings for Roberts until at least Thursday and no later than next Monday, out of respect for Rehnquist. The hearing had originally been set for Tuesday.
"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," Bush said in the Oval Office with Roberts at his side.
The choice was to a certain degree a sentimental one, given that Roberts was once a law clerk for Rehnquist, who died on Saturday of thyroid cancer.
It was also a shrewd political move because, as a newcomer already nominated to serve as one of the high court's eight associate justices, Roberts' background and credentials have been scrutinized and no major obstacles found.
Rehnquist's death at age 80 left a rare two openings on the high court and gave Bush the chance to move it to the right for decades to come. The Supreme Court interprets the U.S. Constitution and is the final arbitrator on such hot-button issues as civil rights, abortion rights and gay rights.
Bush, grappling with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, urged the Senate to move quickly to confirm Roberts, 50, in time for the Oct. 3 start of the Supreme Court's new term.
"The Senate is well along in the process of considering Judge Roberts' qualifications. They know his record, and his fidelity to the law. I'm confident the Senate can complete hearings and confirm him as chief justice within a month," he said.
YOUNG CHIEF JUSTICE
If confirmed, Roberts would be the youngest chief justice in more than 200 years. John Marshall was 45 when he was appointed chief justice on Jan. 20, 1801, by John Adams, the second president of the United States.
Senate Democrats vowed to give Roberts intense scrutiny given the enormous power the court wields at the top of the judicial branch of the U.S. government. While some Senate Democrats call Roberts out of the mainstream, his confirmation has seemed assured.
"If confirmed to this lifetime job, John Roberts would become the leader of the third branch of the federal government and the most prominent judge in the nation. The Senate must be vigilant in considering this nomination," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Bush nominated Roberts in July to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring, but said on Monday he wanted Roberts to replace Rehnquist instead.
The president informed O'Connor of his decision from the Air Force One flight that was taking him to Louisiana for an update on Hurricane Katrina relief operations.
Bush told her he would move to fill the second opening on the high court in a timely manner. O'Connor has pledged to stay on the court until her successor is confirmed.
White House officials said Bush could move relatively quickly on picking a second nominee, noting that he has already conducted background work on a number of possible choices and consulted with 70 senators.
LIST OF CANDIDATES
Potential choices include his longtime friend, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and appeals court Judges J. Michael Luttig, Michael McConnell, and J. Harvie Wilkinson, whom Bush interviewed before nominating Roberts.
In addition, New Orleans appeals court judge Edith Brown Clement was believed to have been a finalist for the opening for which Roberts was selected.
Liberal groups called for greater scrutiny of Roberts now that he had been nominated to be chief justice, while conservative groups applauded the move.
While the administration has provided thousands of documents on Roberts' background, Senate Democrats have been demanding access to his records as deputy solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
The White House has rejected the request, saying they are privileged materials reflecting "internal discussions" by government lawyers.
"Before the Senate acts on John Roberts' new nomination, we should know even more about his record, and we should know whom the president intends to propose to nominate as a replacement for Sandra Day O'Connor," said Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro)
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